On Being an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”

An online dictionary defines the term “ivory tower” as “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world”.  It is frequently used in a derisive way, especially in regards to academia, to imply that someone’s ideas or actions are not as relevant as they might be otherwise because they are so far out of step with reality.

The day to day life of a full time, self-employed equine professional can certainly be grueling.  These people often refer to the fact that being seriously involved with horses is a way of life, and they don’t mind the challenging aspects, including the long hours and few days off.  The up side—being able to spend so much time with horses and to watch horses and riders under their direction or care grow and develop, outweighs the challenges.  However, few would say that the self-employed route is easy, and there are certainly at least moments during which most reasonable people would consider whether the stress and adversity are really worth it.

Before joining the faculty at UNH, I too was “in the trenches” and cobbled my living together through an assortment of jobs.  In the mornings, I was an assistant barn manager at a dressage facility, completing the usual daily chores but also getting horses ready for the trainer/manager.  In the afternoons, I ran a small lesson business on borrowed school horses, teaching mostly children the basics of horsemanship.  I taught Pony Club.  I worked part time at UNH for a few semesters.  I worked in the banquet department at the Sheraton, where I learned that the best shifts were for weddings, because most everyone was in a good mood and there was a DJ and cake.   I lived from contract to contract. I paid through the nose for a health insurance policy which would still have required me to drain all savings before it would have paid a cent.

My horse Lee and two UNH IHSA team members, each of whom won a flat class on her at the home show.
My horse Lee and two UNH IHSA team members, each of whom won a flat class on her at the home show.

When I first started at UNH, it was positively decadent.  I couldn’t BELIEVE that they sent me a paycheck every two weeks just for showing up.  UNH has excellent benefits, both insurance wise and investment wise, and you can also take classes.  I was able to complete my Master’s degree mostly for free.  The hours are still long, and there have been plenty of nights and weekends dedicated to the cause.  But by and large, it has provided me with a great deal of security and stability, values which I have determined are essential for my mental health.  And most of the time, I get to do what I like to do: work with horses and humans.

Participants in UNH's therapeutic riding program.  Shazaam, Marcy and Quill are all now retired, while Snowy (second from right) is a boarder who still works part time in the therapeutic program.
Participants in UNH’s therapeutic riding program. Shazaam, Marcy and Quill are all now retired, while Snowy (second from right) is a boarder who still works part time in the therapeutic program.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend four days in Michigan teaching a Pony Club camp—it was great fun, and a nice chance to get back to my roots.  The schedule was full, as was camp enrollment—something like 32 campers and a few Horsemasters, four mounted instructors and assorted local experts helping out with unmounted topics.

The three other instructors who I worked with all run their own riding/training/lesson businesses.  One owns a thriving eventing and dressage barn, and had during one day in the previous week taught 18 lessons and ridden something like five horses.  Another maintains foxhunters for owners who come to ride on weekends, providing full service care including daily conditioning rides and then shipping to and turning out for hunts.  The third has a combination of training horses and lesson clients, straddling the disciplines of dressage and eventing.

With members of the UNH IHSA team at a Vermont show.
With members of the UNH IHSA team at an Vermont show.

Listening to their discussions about the ups and downs of their businesses was enlightening.  One trainer travels from farm to farm in the afternoons to teach private clients.   A few clients are chronic last minute cancellers, which leaves her on the road with an hour or more of down time.  When you freelance, time is money, and when such cancellations become common it can significantly impact the bottom line. She is struggling to come up with a cancellation policy which won’t alienate her clients but can protect her interests.

The trainers all have a few “difficult” clients; we know the archetype.  They have more money than horse sense; they want to do cool and fun movements or jump big jumps with their horses, but do none of the actual work that gets you to that level; and they demand constant attention and validation.  They talked about the strategies they use to keep these clients on track, working towards attaining goals without pushing too hard, placating their concerns and worries via text and phone.  I was exhausted just listening to them.

Then there was the discussion on insurance, all aspects of it—liability/professional, but also health and disability. It is a cripplingly expensive essential. The cost can make it hard for them to save money for future plans or retirement.

It was then that I realized that I may have, quite inadvertently, become an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”, and I listened to the conversation with a bit of detachment. I used to deal with all of these concerns in my previous life, but my current reality is somewhat different.  When a student chooses to repeatedly not come to class or doesn’t want to work super hard at it, their grade is reduced.  Liability insurance is not a major concern as our activities fall under the university’s umbrella policy.  If the weather is bad for a few days, or I am out sick or need to take a day off for personal reasons, I will still get paid the same amount.

Retired UNH horse Flash models the equine digestive system for students participating in the 2013 Equine Education Day.
Retired UNH horse Flash models the equine digestive system for students participating in the 2013 Equine Education Day.

From the outside looking in, it might seem like we Ivory Tower Equestrians have it made.  And in many ways, we do.  But it is not all sunshine and roses, and in some ways the challenges we face are not all that dissimilar to those of our self-employed brethren.  They are similar, but different.

Sometimes Lee lets riders from other schools win prizes too-- here a rider from Colby Sawyer celebrates after winning reserve high point honors.
Sometimes Lee lets riders from other schools win prizes too– here a rider from Colby Sawyer celebrates after winning reserve high point honors.

At colleges/universities, programs live and die by their overall enrollments.  If your classes are full, and there are students in your degree program, then odds are good that there will be some kind of continued support for you, though rarely in the amount or frequency which is actually needed.  But the reverse of the equation is true, and the reality is that an equine program is an expensive one to run.  The “lab equipment” used in all of the hands on classes, including horsemanship but others as well, requires daily care, food, and veterinary/farrier attention.  These aren’t microscopes that sit quietly on a shelf until they are next needed.  All of the usual issues with facility maintenance apply to us, too; fencing needs to be replaced, footing wears out, tack gets worn.  In some ways, it is worse for us than at a private facility, because of the high volume of use during the academic year.  School horse saddles can be ridden in for as many as ten hours per day; when you multiply that times five days per week per a fifteen week semester, that is a lot of seat time for one saddle to see.  These costs are partially covered by the lab fees paid by students; if our classes aren’t full, or the lab fees exceed what the students are willing or able to pay, then the house of cards begins to quickly topple.

Two UNH riders with leased horse Wiggle and UNH's Whisper celebrate after their first ever two phase competition.
Two UNH riders with leased horse Wiggle and UNH’s Whisper celebrate after their first ever two phase competition.

Some people, both from within and from outside of the university setting, criticize the existence of collegiate equine programs, and they are derisive towards the validity of an equine studies degree.  Some think that all we do is ride, or that we are part of the athletics department. At one staff meeting last semester, a tenured faculty member asked if our students’ final capstone course was whether or not they could sit eight seconds on a bucking bronco.  As a program, we are constantly evaluating our curriculum both for efficacy and rigor, but still there are those who publicly and privately question what we do.  At the end of the day, the University of New Hampshire Equine Program graduate is receiving a Bachelor of Science degree, with a heavy emphasis on biological science and including courses in general biology, anatomy and physiology, genetics and nutrition, with specialty courses in equine disease and sports medicine, amongst others.  These subjects and the skills students gain in studying them are applicable to a wide range of career paths, both in and out of the equine industry. Regardless of choice of college major, it is up to the student to figure out what to do with it.  A college major, and the degree it elicits, is only a starting point; the student must then seek out opportunities to continue to grow and expand their careers.

A senior equine studies major gets Coco (leased to UNH by Camp Runoia and a valued horse in the therapeutic riding program) ready for a presentation at the Equine Education Day, spring of 2015.
A senior equine studies major gets Coco (leased to UNH by Camp Runoia and a valued horse in the therapeutic riding program) ready for a presentation at the Equine Education Day, spring of 2015.

Some of the same external critics who deride the validity of an equine degree also publicly criticize anyone who would even CONSIDER donating their horse to a collegiate program.  At least 90% of our horses come as donations from private individuals.  They come for a variety of reasons—age, manageable conditions which reduce resale value, owner financial issues, or a horse that is not up to the continued challenge of a competitive show career, for examples.  Many donors want to know that their horse will not continue to be sold on and on.  Some of our horses have been in our program for most of their lives.  They are well cared for, loved, carefully supervised, and have allowed hundreds if not thousands of horsemen to grow and develop during the animals’ careers with us.  When our horses tell us that they are no longer happy doing what we need them to do, we seek to place them in carefully screened adoptive homes, sometimes with former students.  If they are in pain, suffering or otherwise unwell in a manner which will cause a diminishing quality of life, we allow them a humane and dignified end when their time comes.  However they leave us, we cry to lose them and smile with their memories.

Longtime UNH school horse Cooper passed away this spring at the age of 23 after a period of failing health.  He was in the program for thirteen years.
Longtime UNH school horse Cooper passed away this spring at the age of 23 after a period of failing health. He was in the program for thirteen years.

People criticize equine programs because they cannot keep horses forever.  The reality is that all horses get to an age or physical condition in which their workload must be modified or ceased.  After all, this is often the reason that their original owners passed the horse on to us in the first place.  If the former owner has asked to be notified when this time comes, we always do so (and sometimes even when they have not asked, just to make them aware).  Very few are interested in taking their horses back but are grateful for the call.

UNH students riding school owned horses Clementine, Whisper and Morocco participated in a clinic with UNH graduate Nancy Guyotte.
UNH students riding school owned horses Clementine, Whisper and Morocco participated in a clinic with UNH graduate Nancy Guyotte.

The critics claim that equestrian programs at universities overwork horses, quickly sell them on, or ship them off to auction when they don’t work out.  Perhaps that happens at other places, but it does not happen here.  And frankly, it really frosts me to read those kinds of ignorant comments.  We are quite transparent with our policies and the use of our horses; in fact, every single activity we do with our horses—from riding them to practicing bandaging to therapeutic riding— must be reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and their work hours are carefully documented.  I somehow doubt that most privately owned lesson strings receive such comprehensive and regulated monitoring.

UNH equine residents check out the view.
UNH equine residents check out the view.

We Ivory Tower Equestrians may not be working to run our own business, but many of us are working to run the business that is our program.  We must recruit new “clients” (students) and ensure that the “product” that we are selling them (a B.S. degree) is of high quality and a good value for the money.  We must balance the needs of our program with the values of a constantly changing and somewhat underfunded state university.  And just like our comrades in the field, if our clients aren’t satisfied with our output, they will take their business elsewhere.  A true Ivory Tower Equestrian who does not consider these realities will likely find themselves out of a job. Perhaps we are more alike than we are different.

UNH Equine Program co-hosted a course design clinic with internationally acclaimed designer Richard Jefferey with USEA Area I.  Here students pose with Jefferey after building the show jumping course for the UNH Horse Trials 40th Anniversary.
UNH Equine Program co-hosted a course design clinic with internationally acclaimed designer Richard Jefferey with USEA Area I. Here students pose with Jefferey after building the show jumping course for the UNH Horse Trials 40th Anniversary.

For me, this experience was an important one in terms of remembering what the daily concerns of the self-employed instruction business is like, but also to appreciate the unique benefits and challenges of the university setting.

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