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July / August 2003

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Equestrian Emphasis

Photo by Monty Rand

Equestrian Emphasis
Learning links students, horses and researchers in UMaine's new Equine Program

About the Photo: Sarah Guilmain is among the UMaine equestrians who would benefit from an indoor, multi-purpose arena at the Witter Center. With an arena, horse training and exercise can continue in the winter. Such a facility is integral to the development of an undergraduate degree program in equine business management.


Reproduction Research
It may be a compliment when a physician tells a patient he is healthy as a horse, but for veterinarians and horse breeders, the old adage can belie the truth when it comes to equine reproduction.

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Kiera Finucane drove four and a half days from her New Mexico home to Maine to go to college, a cross-country trek that would have been shorter except that Louie had to come along.

"I didn't have any relatives in Maine and knew if I was going, Louie also had to make the move," says Finucane. "I've had him since he was 8."

Finucane planned her trip to the University of Maine using a "stable directory" so that her 13-year-old Arabian gelding could spend nights in barns along the route rather than in a trailer. She is among a small but growing number of students attracted to and involved in UMaine's Equine Program.

"It has had a big impact on my involvement in the university community," says Finucane, a double major in animal science and biology who will apply to veterinary school starting this October. "It has made UMaine a tremendous experience for me."

UMaine's horse program is built on a foundation of cutting-edge biomedical research, concern for animal welfare, and active involvement of students and Maine's equestrian community. Two of the top researchers in equine reproduction and infertility – UMaine faculty members and veterinarians Dr. Robert Causey and Dr. Jim Weber – lead the program.

Students with interests in horses, including some like Finucane who board their mares at UMaine, work side by side with the researchers. They also participate in a barn cooperative at the J.F. Witter Teaching and Research Center near campus, where the focus is on a scientific approach to equine management. UMaine now offers an academic minor in equine studies, and a major concentration in equine business management, directed by associate professor Jim Leiby in the Department of Resource Economics and Policy.

With support from Maine's harness racing industry, some horses retired from the track are donated to the university, where the standardbreds are retrained for pleasure use. Students and professional trainers prepare retired racehorses, as well as foals, for new lives in the community.

"The value of our program is that anyone from any major can enroll in the minor in equine studies," says Causey. "Horses cut across all disciplines, from biology and medicine to business and marketing, athletics and gymnastics, tourism, recreation and land use, education and social work.

"With the program, we also provide graduate education opportunities in both the biomedical and veterinary sciences. Most recently, we received a USDA grant to help develop a vaccine to control reproductive infections in horses."

Sarah Guilmain
Sarah Guilmain is among the UMaine equestrians who would benefit from an indoor, multi-purpose arena at the Witter Center. With an arena, horse training and exercise can continue in the winter. Such a facility is integral to the development of an undergraduate degree program in equine business management. Guilmain, a graduate student in animal and veterinary sciences, works with Dr. Jim Weber and a medical researcher at Eastern Maine Medical Center to study the effects of hypothyroidism during pregnancy on fetal nervous system development in mice.

Photo by Monty Rand

The Witter Center, part of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station, is a 400-acre working farm near the Orono campus. Seven years ago, it underwent a transformation. What had been exclusively a research facility now includes a center for student-focused learning. In addition to research, animal science faculty and nearly 300 students of many academic disciplines are involved in classes at Witter, including several who participate in the farm's management through the horse cooperative and UMADCOWS (UMaine Applied Dairy Cooperative of Working Students).

Today, the self-sustaining equine management cooperative is home to 16 horses donated to UMaine and up to 18 boarded by students. Members of the co-op – both those boarding horses and those with an interest in equines – each undertake up to 20 hours of chores weekly, from 5:30 a.m.—10 p.m.

"Witter has an amazing group of dedicated people, all here for the common good of the animals," says Finucane, who, like some of her peers, also became interested in Witter's dairy herd, last year serving as student advisor for UMADCOWS. "You learn about dealing with people and getting everyone to work together. It's a place where everybody knows your name – our own version of ‘Cheers.'"

As of March, four prospective students entering UMaine this fall had already filled out applications to be part of the co-op. Rarely a day goes by that Witter livestock manager Marcy Guillette doesn't get at least one inquiry from a student hoping to participate.
"We have more students with more knowledge and interest in horses than ever before, including more beginners and students for whom working with horses has been a life-long dream," says Guillette.

"Several of our students are working at well-respected horse facilities in New England; others have continued to graduate or veterinary school."

In 1998, an 18-year-old standardbred stallion named Pedrine became the first retired harness racehorse to be donated to the University of Maine. The donation was facilitated by the U.S. Trotting Association and the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization.
Standardbreds are considered intelligent, versatile, easy-going trotting horses. Until recently, the breed was thought to be limited largely to racing, so that horses that came off the track faced uncertain futures.

At UMaine, retired racehorses receive about two years of retraining for pleasure use. Whether the horses are trained in dressage, jumping or driving depends on the animal. To date, six retired racehorses have been retrained at UMaine and sold to good homes, with the proceeds returning to the program.

To support the teaching and research, retired racehorses donated to the university must be reproductively and physically sound mares, usually ages 3—10. Twice weekly, certified horse trainer Jan Hartwell comes to Witter to supervise the retraining program. Working closely with her is student trainer Sarah Marriner, a fourth-year resource economics major specializing in equine business management. Marriner, who started riding at age 3, has learned from some of the best professional horse trainers in Maine. At Witter, she trains horses and mentors her peers.

The Maine Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association, and members of the Downeast Harness Horsemen's Association, offer internships. Students also work with UMaine alumna Valerie Grondin, who for the fifth season is training a university-owned horse at Bangor Raceway.

Grondin first worked with a 4-year-old standardbred named Venus of Milo that was donated in 1998 by the late Tom Kole, former executive director of the Maine Harness Racing Promotion Board. Prize money that Venus won in two seasons covered training costs and supported the UMaine Equine Program.

Venus is now in the retraining program at Witter. The university continues to have a presence at the track in the form of One Vine Lady, a standardbred purchased for the program in 2001 with the help of Maine's Harness Racing Board. As an ambassador for UMaine's Equine Program, One Vine Lady, like Venus before her, has quite a following.

"The support of the local equine industry has made this program possible," says Causey. "The donation of retired racehorses, the support of industry leaders, and the welcome for UMaine students at local equine facilities have given our students an array of choices as they include horses in their education."

by Margaret Nagle
July-August, 2003

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