Equine educators pursue students at WEG

The University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture planted seeds at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games that could result in a bumper crop of new students.

More than 230 potential students left contact information at the UK pavilion at the Games, the majority interested in the school's equine degrees, according to Jason Headrick, director of student relations.

The college was pleasantly surprised that so many teenagers sought out information.

"We really didn't know who was going to visit the Games, whether it would be Kentucky students or others," Headrick said.

About 7 percent of the inquiries came from outside the United States. Interest came from Australia, Costa Rica, Columbia, Canada, Argentina and Mexico, he said.

During 16 days of equestrian competitions in reining, dressage, jumping, eventing, vaulting, paradressage, endurance and four-in-hand combined carriage driving, more than half a million visitors from all over the world came to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

That gave UK access to an international pool of horse lovers, an opportunity educators were eager to take advantage of.

"The whole event was a celebration of the equine. Not just Lexington, but the world. If we can get one out-of-state student, that helps the diversity of the program," Headrick said.

UK's undergraduate equine degree program, which has been in place since 2009, has about 168 students in two four-year programs — a science-based track and a business/marketing track.

But UK is hardly alone. Kentucky has become something of a hub of equine education with at least nine schools around the state offering various types of courses and/or degrees, and they all were eager to participate in the Games.

Rich Wilcke, director of the University of Louisville's 24-year-old Equine Industry Program in that school's business college, said that the Council on Post-Secondary Education was looking for ways to get involved in the Games and hit upon the state's equine courses.

"It was important that Kentucky schools be represented at the World Equestrian Games," Wilcke said.

But separate booths for each school would have been cost-prohibitive, he said. So UK and U of L jointly paid for a booth and invited everybody to join under the banner of the Equine Education Consortium.

"It makes sense to pool our resources," Wilcke said. And each school offers something a little bit different, so students can look for what suits them, he said.

"Who knows how many students will come? Having the WEG in Kentucky reinforced Kentucky's role as the epicenter of the industry, that that's where all the horse activity is," Wilcke said.

Elizabeth Catron, program coordinator at Georgetown College, said she was surprised at the traffic at the consortium's booth in the Equine Village.

"There was a lot more interest than we actually expected. I met a girl from Russia who was looking at a Kentucky college," Catron said. "It was surprising to see that many people there with that on their minds. We even had a lot of young ones, too. ... It will be interesting to see what the result is over the next few years."

The Games are already drawing new people to the schools. During the weeks of the competitions, Midway College had almost a dozen student visits to its campus, said Janice Holland, who teaches equine nutrition at Midway.

"It was a great way to showcase Kentucky and the Kentucky equine education," Holland said. "It wasn't just WEG itself. There was so much advertising ... and a tremendous amount of press."

The schools debuted the consortium at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in April and hope to be able to continue working together, Holland said.

"I would love to see us be able to take it to other conferences inside and outside Kentucky," she said.

Bob Coleman, head of UK's equine degree program, said the consortium plans to be at the annual conventions of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association, the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative and the Kentucky Horse Council in January, and is looking at opportunities in Ohio.

The consortium gives all the schools a chance to shine by answering questions about what potential students are interested in, he said.

Among the most frequent queries: "Can I bring my horse to school with me?" and questions about riding opportunities at college.

"There are lots of choices on the activity side," Coleman said. "If you have someone who says they really want to be on a rodeo team, then UK wouldn't be the one to look at. Murray would be; they have a great rodeo team."

The bottom line: Students coming to Kentucky for an education need to look at which school offers what they want so they can get in the right program.

"We have our niches. Everybody has something to work with. There's a host of expertise across the state," Coleman said. "We want students to succeed. And students succeeding helps the horse industry."