A rapt crowd watched as the pickup truck from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine pulled into the South Farm paddock. Bree, a four-week-old palomino born prematurely, was getting an examination. Veterinarians and vet students planned to use a portable radiograph machine to evaluate her growth progress.
Observing the procedure were more than a dozen students involved in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Horse Farm Volunteer Program.
Established in spring 2008, the program helps undergraduate student gain experience in horse care and general maintenance while working with the breeding herd.
Volunteers from all backgrounds are accepted; in fact, almost 90 percent of volunteers have no prior direct equine experience. They join the program to learn practical skills. For many it’s also a labor of love.
About 40 volunteers work with the program at any one time. Most are CAFNR Animal Sciences students who aspire to be veterinarians. As a group, the volunteers donate between 700 to 800 hours each semester, working with 20 to 30 horses.
“The volunteers are essential to the success of our program,” said Marci Jennings Crosby, equine science instructor. “If you multiply their donated hours by the minimum wage, you get a feeling for the financial savings that they provide us. They make a huge impact in helping us remain self-funded.”
Since the volunteer program started 18 months ago, Crosby estimates that 3,000 hours have been donated—about $22,000 in labor.
Grab a shovel
Volunteers are responsible for daily feeding, turnout, stall cleaning and grooming of horses.
They are notified of all opportunities to assist with veterinary medical or farrier appointments to bolster their experience. They also watch mares and foals with medical risks, handle weanlings and yearlings, assist in routine health care and help with the sale horse preview.
Kee Hwan Park, an animal science major from South Korea who hopes to become a large-animal veterinarian, had rarely been near a horse in his home country. The volunteer program, he said, is a great way to gain the practical experience he needs to be accepted into veterinary medical school.
Lauren Schlosser from St. Louis is a senior in animal sciences who hopes to open a mixed-practiced veterinary clinic. Even without this career goal, she said, she would volunteer because she loves to be around horses.
Most new volunteers are paired with senior volunteers. They start off cleaning stalls and performing other entry-level work as they gain experience around the animals. As the students learn the ropes and gain confidence, they oversee feeding, grooming and exercise.
“The volunteers generally watch over the horses,” Crosby said.
Sarah Hunsucker of Roger, Ark., an animal sciences student who hopes to open her own clinic, said the program has taught her much about horses that she couldn’t learn from only riding them. “I learned what to look out for, what is normal and what is not,” she said. “Learning from visits by veterinarians has given me real experience in veterinary medicine.”
Supporting the equine educational program
The volunteers help support the MU Equine Program, an educational emphasis area within animal sciences that prepares CAFNR students for careers with horses. Crosby, who has coordinated the program for two years, said that about 100 students enroll each semester and about one-fifth have a particular interest in horses.
Equine students can take five horse-specific courses and study farm management, breeding and nutrition. An equestrian science minor, in association with Stephens College, allows the students to hone their riding skills. Graduates manage horse farms, equine veterinary clinics and nutrition operations.
Bree’s bill of health
The veterinarians and vet students explained the radiograph procedure to the volunteers as Bree, obviously pleased with the attention, stood in center stage. Getting a short course in reading X-rays, the volunteers got insight into what their lives might be like if they enter veterinary medical school. The verdict: Bree’s legs were progressing normally and no medical intervention would be needed.