More than three decades have passed since I called my parents from college to share the news that I was changing my major. I was trading a safe course of study and the prospect of gainful employment for an academic program that would lead me to a career working with horses. I wasn’t sure what they would make of my decision. As most parents would, they responded to my news with concern. “What are you going to do with a degree in that?” they asked. “I’m not fully sure,” I recall telling them. “But I know I will be happy.” Fortunately, they trusted my judgment and supported my choice.
Today I am a college professor employed for more than 25 years in the field of equine academics. I thoroughly enjoy teaching and interacting with students. I have also come to know very well the variety of careers the horse industry has to offer. It is knowledge I frequently and enthusiastically provide to parents and students weighing the variety of factors associated with attending college to focus on equine studies (a term I’m using in the broadest sense to describe the full range of horse-related learning opportunities). Here is the advice I commonly share.
Start With a Passion
Imagine someone offering to pay all of your college expenses as long as you study a subject for which you have zero interest and passion. Would you accept the proposition and then succeed in the classroom? Possibly yes, but probably no.
Passion is a powerful motivator, often more compelling than money. It is what inspires students not only to learn but to excel. And it can continue to guide their efforts long after graduation as they seek employment and build a successful career. From my perspective, there is no better value than investing in an education that prepares you to do the work that is your life’s passion.
Envision a Career
When that passion involves horses, the career options are many and varied. They range from jobs classified as “hands on”—farm management, riding instruction, breeding/foaling, riding/training—to positions in the equine-support sector: accounting, computer technology, architecture, communications, marketing, promotion, sales, customer relations, insurance, law and others. All require some degree of education. Whatever the job, it is essential to know what you are doing when you work with horses. It is impossible to fake your way through.
College coursework that is relevant to current and emerging horse-industry careers is vital, and equine-studies faculty understand the importance of maintaining a strong connection between academics and industry. That’s why many colleges and universities with equine-studies programs stay abreast of occupational opportunities through formal and informal industry advisory boards as well as ongoing outreach and networking efforts.
As an example, a series of professional panels at a conference this summer organized by the National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics—a group I founded to increase cooperation and information-sharing among colleges and universities—facilitated meaningful interaction between academics and industry. Educators listened as business leaders emphasized that it is just as important for graduates of equine-studies programs to have strong communication, problem-solving and business skills as it is for them to have knowledge and abilities related to horses. Certainly not a new message, it served as a valuable reminder to faculty of the importance of continually revisiting industry needs to make sure that graduating students are in the best position to succeed in their chosen careers.
Nurture With Care
In my experience, you would be hard-pressed to find an equine-studies faculty member who isn’t passionate about his or her work. And that passion is what motivates them every day to build a framework of success for their students both in and out of the classroom.
Their efforts are apparent in many ways. For instance, many faculty are using information from NAEAA surveys of incoming equine-studies students to adjust coursework and ease the transition from high school to college. Additional information compiled by NAEAA indicates that it is common for equine-studies faculty to get to know students through introductory seminars and classes as well as a host of horse-oriented extracurricular activities. As a school year progresses, faculty frequently involve students in industry events and networking activities to gauge their progress with regard not only to their equine skills and knowledge but also their ability to communicate and problem-solve.
The effort certainly yields encouraging results. NAEAA surveys of equine-studies students reveal that they are more likely than other college students to have discussed course content outside of class, met with an adviser or counselor for career guidance and/or received emotional support and encouragement from a faculty member. They also are more likely to have been a guest in a faculty member’s home. Through their ongoing commitment to students, equine-studies faculty are commonly viewed as mentors with whom students develop lasting professional relationships as they make the transition from college to the workforce.
Finish in Four
There is real economic value in earning a college degree—as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a professional career. But that assumes the completion of study in the usually allotted four years; the longer it takes to earn the credits necessary for graduation, the greater the cost. Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics indicates that just 39 percent of all college graduates complete their degrees within four years. That number is significantly higher for those enrolled in equine-studies programs. In 2014, 61 percent of the graduating students participating in an NAEAA study finished their college curriculum within four years, and 87 percent were graduating from the school that had been their first choice. In the process they acquired experience beyond the classroom seen as valuable by employers:
• 76 percent completed an internship
• 67 percent had a part-time job while in school; 42 percent worked full-time during summer and breaks
• 68 percent participated in a formal equine-related extracurricular activity.
In short, those who graduated with a degree in equine studies this past June were well prepared to begin careers in the horse industry. National data, too, supports this point, indicating that equine-studies students are more likely than others to have opportunities to apply classroom learning in real-world situations. That makes them an especially valuable commodity to any equine business professional looking to hire a qualified candidate ready to make a meaningful contribution right from the start.
Karin Bump, PhD, is a professor in the equine business management program at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, New York. She is also the founder and director of the National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics and with her husband, Tim Williams, co-founded The Right Program For U, a consulting service to help students and families identify academic programs that best fit their interests and need. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.