Alex Cox has been riding horses since he was 11 and hopes to be a jockey in a few years. But he wants to know a lot more about horses than just how to ride them.
So Cox, 14, decided to become one of the first 17 students in Lexington Catholic High School's Equine Academy, a new four-year program designed to introduce young people to career opportunities in all aspects of the horse industry.
"I want to learn all about horses, how to keep them healthy and how the business works," the freshman said. "It's my favorite class by far. It's really fun. When I grow up, I want to do something fun for a living."
The program seemed like a natural for Lexington Catholic, said Steve Angelucci, the school's president. Many students already were interested, because they rode or were from horse-industry families. Plus, the Lexington area offered an unparalleled opportunity for exposure to and partnership with major industry players.
The school has formed academic partnerships with the equine programs at the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College, as well as relationships with more than 20 local farms, organizations and companies, including Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park, Alltech, and two of the nation's largest equine medical practices, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital and Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.
"We're trying to create well-rounded professionals to be the next generation of leaders in the equine industry," said Sarah Coleman, the academy's director. The Ohio native previously was executive director of Georgetown College's Equine Scholars Program.
"There are so many jobs out there involving horses," Coleman said. "Being raised here, I think kids forget the novelty of this area. For a horse lover, it's like being a kid in a candy store."
Freshman Adriana DeCarlo, 14, doesn't come from a horse industry family, but she has always loved them and has been riding since she was 4 years old. She thinks she wants a career involving horses, perhaps either in science or the Thoroughbred industry, but the academy has already been helpful.
"I've learned a lot," she said. "It has helped me take care of my own horse."
The program calls for students to take eight equine courses over four years, including horse anatomy and physiology, health care, nutrition and management, reproduction and farm management, and equine business and marketing. Those classes are taught by Shannon White, general manager of Fares Farm and former hospital supervisor at Rood & Riddle.
The program includes many extracurricular lectures, field trips, speakers and shadowing, and mentoring opportunities. Students participate in service projects and must do a senior project.
On a recent field trip to Hagyard, the students got a tour of the horse hospital and spoke with several young veterinarians.
"Veterinary medicine is not a career," Dr. Ashley Craig, a field care intern, told the students. "It's a life choice."
Dr. William Rainbow said he became a veterinarian after growing up in the industry and participating in Darley Flying Start, a two-year Thoroughbred leadership development program that allowed him to travel all over the world.
"I never thought mucking stalls would get me that far, but it did," Rainbow said.
Perhaps the highlight of the tour for this group was Hagyard's super-size, high-tech medical equipment — a walk-in hypobaric chamber for high-oxygen healing therapy and the huge MRI machine, with a magnet powerful enough to cause a bag of steel wool on a string to fly across the room.
Other extracurricular activities have included visits to Keeneland, Alltech and the Red Mile, as well as basic lessons in polo, vaulting and driving.
Coleman said horse industry people have been very welcoming to the students and supportive of the Equine Academy.
"Everybody I talk to says they wish they had had that when they were in school," she said.