Columbia, a city known for its top journalism school, its low unemployment rate and its consistent ranking as one of the most livable places in the country, is also home to a top equestrian program. Surprised?
The Equestrian Management Program offered by Stephens College boasts one of the most well-known programs in the United States, helped by having one of the oldest continuous riding clubs in the country, the Prince of Wales Club.
The program began in 1926 and has won several walls’ worth of ribbons and trophies. Students learn how to manage a stable of horses, along with learning horse anatomy and how to ride using different saddles.
Michele Smith, chairwoman of the program who has spent 13 years in the program, said that she couldn’t say how many ribbons and trophies the students have won over the past 77 years of the program.
A strong foundation
Students come from all over the country, from New York to California. Allison Mather, a 19-year-old sophomore from Mill Valley, Calif., chose the program over others that she did not find as impressive.
“It’s more laid-back and not as uptight like the other places,” Mather said of Stephens, as she watched from the stands in the arena at the stables. Three riders bobbed in their saddles as the strong horses, tall as professional basketball players, cantered around the arena.
The stables, off Old U.S. 63 north of Broadway, house 46 Stephens-owned and boarded horses, which train in an outdoor and an indoor arena. The indoor arena is in a brick building — the back wall of which is covered with longe lines and a longe whip hanging from metal hooks. The barn calls to mind those seen in the distance while driving Interstate 70 from Concordia to Columbia.
The arena has a wide patch of sand pockmarked by horseshoe prints. As Mather watched, the number of riders dropped to two, as one of the horses was sent to an adjoining pasture because of an injured leg.
“The hock (hind area of leg) is a little sore,” Smith said as she examined the horse.
The Stephens program consists of basic general education requirements such as business, math and sciences courses, as well as equestrian classes.
These courses include farrier science — the study of horse shoeing and anatomy — as well as stable management and techniques of training.
“A horse is like any athlete, it gets strains and sprains,” Smith said, observing the riders as they picked up their pace in the arena.
On this day, the class was an advanced hunt seat class, where students learn how to jump. While Smith called to the students to “get up to canter,” a small calico cat named Cash crawled through the stands and into Mather’s lap.
Mather began riding when she was 3. “When I was a little kid, I used to ride the arms of the couch,” she said. “I think my parents got the hint.”
As Mather stroked the cat, the riders made clucking sounds. Mather explained that is how they get the horses to trot and canter.
“For hunt seat or hunter horses, you cluck to get them to canter,” she said. “In Western horses, you make a kissing sound, and for saddle seat you wave your arms and do everything.”
The program also teaches students how to care for the horses and run a stable. Students are in the stables every day of the week — grooming, training and washing their horses. In the horse “keeper” class, students must take care of six horses, including sick horses. Mather said that last year she had to tend a horse with an ulcer in its eye.
“I came out in my PJs every morning to medicate and take care of him,” Mather said.
Even though the students switch horses during the semester, they say they form bonds with their animals.
Christina Hawkins, a 21-year-old senior from San Antonio, has already formed a connection with her new horse, Peepers.
“I’ve never had a day where she has been bad,” Hawkins said as she led the light-brown horse in circles in the outdoor ring.
Hawkins has been riding since she was 10. Her first horse was somewhat wild, she said, and wouldn’t let anyone around it, so Hawkins spent five hours a day grooming and touching it. The horse got so used to her owner that it wouldn’t let anyone else ride.
“My first horse made me feel comfortable around horses,” Hawkins said.
The first priority
As she spoke, Hawkins worked with Peepers, trying to get her to step in the same spot. After the workout, Hawkins pressed her hand between the horse’s great shoulders to feel whether she was hot and needed to cool down. Hawkins then led the horse into the stables. Stephens has 51 stalls. Over Peepers’ stall it says, ‘Hot for the Blue’ — the horse’s show name.
Hawkins brushed the excess dirt and dust off of the horse, sharing little-known facts about horses, like how they have a scar-like mark on the inside of their legs, called chestnuts.
She spoke softly to the horse in sweet tones. “I talk to my horses as if they’re my babies,” she said.
Hawkins sniffled and wiped her nose — turns out she’s allergic to horses. “I don’t let it stop me from doing what I love,” she said.
The Stephens program is also open to students from MU and Columbia College, as well as members of the community who want to learn to ride.
Julianne O’Bannon, a sophomore at MU, took horse classes last year at Stephens, and this year she set her MU schedule around them. “I wanted to get a little variety and wanted to work with more horses,” said O’Bannon, who has shown horses since she was 10 with her mother and her sister.
Most of the students in the Stephens program aspire to managing and working with horses after graduation. “I definitely want to keep a job in horses,” Mather said. “If I went into the business, I would want to go into breeding and training.”
For Hawkins, who graduates in May, the “real” world of working in the horse business will come sooner than later. “I’m trying to get a job with Anheuser Busch and work with draft horses,” she said.
Watching her students canter around the arena, Smith summed up the world of horses this way: “In this business,” she said, “you have to like it 24/7, 365.”