“Horses are my career.”
Kaija Caldwell said the words still feel surreal coming out of her mouth. When Caldwell first arrived at the University of Missouri she wasn’t sure where her interest in animals was going to take her. She certainly wasn’t expecting to fall in love with horses.
“I knew that MU had a great animal sciences program, which was big for me because I knew I wanted to work with animals,” Caldwell said. “I wasn’t exactly sure where my passions were, though. I’m still shocked to see where a simple conversation – and a bit of curiosity – led me.”
Early on during her sophomore year as a Tiger, Caldwell ran into a friend who was talking a class at the MU Equine Teaching Facility. As her friend described the type of care she was giving to the horses at the facility, Caldwell thought the work sounded interesting and would, at the very least, provide a solid hands-on learning opportunity.
“I decided to give it a shot and I’m so glad that I did,’” Caldwell said. “I soon started gearing all of my electives toward equine. I took every class that I could.”
The timing couldn’t have been better for Caldwell, also known as K.C. around the teaching facility. CAFNR, in coordination with the animal sciences degree program, decided to create an official certificate, awarded to students who complete six equine courses.
“I was actually part of the first class to graduate with the certificate,” Caldwell said. “It honestly felt like a second degree with the amount of work that was required to earn it. I’m glad that there was something that we could leave with that showcased all of the hard work we did and what we accomplished.”
Caldwell left Mizzou in 2020 with an animal sciences degree and the equine science and management certificate. She had also found her passion.
Caldwell’s interactions with horses were limited growing up, but they weren’t nonexistent. Hailing from Chicago’s South Side, Caldwell would see the Mounted Patrol Unit in the Chicago Police Department and numerous Black cowboys participating, on horseback, in a variety of celebratory events, such as parades.
Her primary hands-on experiences with horses came at her cousin’s house, as he boarded horses on his property in Michigan. Caldwell would visit during school breaks and interact with the horses there.
“He had around 80 acres of land, and I would ride one of his mares all over,” Caldwell said. “I was probably around 10 years old, and, honestly, I haven’t been comfortable riding a horse since then. But I was a fearless kid – it didn’t bother me at all.”
When Caldwell started to get serious about horses as a potential career option at Mizzou, she connected with Marci Crosby, an instructor in the Division of Animal Sciences, who is also in charge of the MU Equine Teaching Facility.
“When it comes to this lifestyle, she raised me into it,” Caldwell said. “I would not be where I am without Marci Crosby. Everything I learned prior to graduating came from her. I’m always going to be grateful for her.
“She’s still influential in my life, too, because she’s influenced so many others. My thoroughbred racehorse industry mentor is a former student who studied under Marci. She connected me with so many others as well; it’s really incredible when you sit down and think about how she’s inspired so many of us in this industry.”
Caldwell said she was able to be transparent with Crosby and other animal sciences faculty throughout her time at MU. While they imparted knowledge to prepare Caldwell for life after school, Caldwell was able to return the favor. She helped guide her instructors on issues that extended beyond the classroom.
“When I came first came in, I’m sitting in a lecture hall of 200 or so students and I could count on one hand the number of students who looked like me,” Caldwell said. “That was nerve wracking for me coming from small schools in the city where everyone looked liked me. Coming from Chicago, you tend to carry the hardships of the city on your back when you leave. I’m always thinking about my home. There were things I was dealing with that my peers didn’t relate to. I was able to be honest and open about the real-life struggles happening and the personal responsibilities that I, as an African American student, carried being in the skin I am in.
“I appreciated those conversations. And as the animal sciences program became more and more popular during my time there, it made me happy to see more Black students comfortable in that space. We oftentimes carry a lot with us and at the end of the day we were still just kids in college. I was glad to be able to share that with my instructors and make them aware of those day-to-day struggles.”
Entering the Industry
After taking in all she could as an undergraduate student, Caldwell soon faced a decision on how she wanted to incorporate horses into her career. But first, she took a well-deserved break.
Along with being a CAFNR Ambassador, Deaton Scholar and active in four additional students organizations, Caldwell was a student worker in the Division of Animal Sciences and held a student supervising job at Plaza 900, where she was a two-time student employee scholarship winner. She helped create CAFNR Connections, an organization for students of color in CAFNR to gather informally, engage in conversation and share their voice.
“I moved back home right after graduation and sat on my butt for six months – and it was beautiful,” Caldwell laughed. “I had held at least one job since I was 16 years old, mainly because I enjoyed having my own pocket money. When my parents saw my schedule and how much work I was putting in without any complaints, they wanted me to come home and relax. I’m so thankful to have parents like that. I was able to chill and put life on pause for a little bit.”
Caldwell even worked a study abroad experience into her busy MU schedule, traveling to Cambodia where she lived in an elephant sanctuary in the middle of the jungle.
“That experience is going to be really hard to top,” Caldwell said. “Taking a nap in the middle of the jungle surrounded by elephants – it really doesn’t get better than that. The entire trip was incredible and super humbling. Elephants are massive and so powerful, but they’re also so gentle. It was amazing.”
The three-week trip also allowed Caldwell and her travel mates to build a house for a family in need and teach at a local school. She was blessed by a monk and visited the Angkor Wat temple, the third largest religious monument in the world.
“The architecture was incredible and was something I could really resonate with, as the design were of people who looked like me,” Caldwell said. “It was also so interesting because the kids I taught had never seen someone with their skin color who wasn’t Cambodian or Asian. They were so curious – and they were so shocked to know that I was from Chicago. I couldn’t believe they had even heard of Chicago, but they were in awe to meet someone from the big city with such a pretty sky, as they described it. These kids, on the other side of the planet, knowing about my hometown was wild.
“I still carry around one of the bracelets a student gave me. I love being able to keep that energy with me.”
While Caldwell’s break after earning her degree was refreshing, she was soon ready to get back to her horses. As a sophomore at MU, Caldwell had learned about the prestigious Kentucky Equine Management Internship. The program was always in the back of her mind, and she kept a brochure related to the internship around just in case. Caldwell thought that if she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do after graduation she would give the program a try. Caldwell was accepted into the program in June 2021.
“They were accepting a smaller amount of applicants due to the pandemic, so I was really excited to get in,” Caldwell said.
Making Her Mark
Caldwell interned at Trackside Farm, one of the many racehorse farms located throughout Kentucky. Like many ranches throughout the state, the horses at Trackside receive exquisite treatment. Caldwell played a major role in that care.
“The horses in these type of locations are getting the best care on the planet,” Caldwell said. “It was exhausting work but such an amazing learning experience. It gave me a great perspective of what the next chapter could look like.”
While the six-month internship did give Caldwell behind-the-scenes access to an industry she was interested in, she realized that she may not be quite ready to jump into it full-time. She moved back home and started working for her late pet’s veterinarian.
“I knew then that I wanted to be in the industry, but I also knew the sacrifices that it would take,” Caldwell said. “I’m in it for the passion. I’m doing it because it makes my soul feel good. I really didn’t want monetary issues to overshadow that passion. I’ve watched that happen and didn’t want it for myself. So I made a tough decision, but one that I think was for the best.”
Caldwell has served as an assistant veterinarian technician for the Bronzeville Animal Clinic in Chicago for the past year. She does a little bit of everything, including giving vaccines, drawing blood, intubating patients and running X-rays.
“This has been a great way for me to stay around animals. They truly are my peace,” Caldwell said. “I don’t really think about this even being work. I just get to focus on my animals and enjoy them.”
Caldwell actually volunteered at the Bronzeville Animal Clinic during her senior year of high school. She said it was a great experience and opened her eyes to a career that she didn’t necessarily want to pursue.
“Volunteering there made me realize that I definitely didn’t want to be a veterinarian,” Caldwell joked. “So it is a bit funny to be back in the same spot and working with the same people. Everyone has been great, and I’ve learned so much during my time there.”
Caldwell is planning to move back to Kentucky in August.
“I can’t wait to get back,” Caldwell said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time back at home, but after going back to Kentucky for the Breeder’s Cup this past November, my yearning to be immersed in the thoroughbred horse racing industry only multiplied. That’s how I know I’m ready.”
Caldwell said that she knows returning to Kentucky is just an early step in her career journey. It’s also one that she’s been preparing for since taking her friend’s advice to take a class at the MU Equine Teaching Facility.
“When I was a CAFNR Ambassador, I would tell high school students the most important thing about college is finding something you like,” Caldwell said. “You don’t have to know the specifics, but school is expensive and it’s vital to get the most out of it. A lot of us come out with quite a bit of debt; let it be for something you’re passionate about. I knew I wanted to work with animals and the animal sciences program allowed me to find and explore my interests. They helped guide me and I now get to say that my passions have turned into my career.”