At 5:30 on a Thursday morning, the lights in the office of the Cal Poly Equine Center are already on. Fletcher Gales is inside, brewing coffee and going over paperwork before the morning feeding.
Gales, an agribusiness junior, is co-manager of the Equine Center, which houses 92 horses. In the spring, when the mares give birth, that number will increase to approximately 114. Gales oversees the care, health, breeding and feeding — the last of which is held twice a day — with the help of his co-manager and six student employees.
“Usually, I just have my employees feed, but I do it once or twice a week just because it’s a way to get around the property and look at every horse,” Gales said.
Gales is not the first student in charge of Cal Poly’s small-scale horse ranch. The Equine Center opened at Cal Poly in 1902, and in 1924, students such as Gales began managing the center.
The facility was created in the hands-on spirit of the university, Equine Center supervisor Alaina Parsons said.
“The purpose was ‘Learn By Doing,’ so students would work here,” Parsons said.
As supervisor, Parsons handles paperwork and assists the Equine Center’s student employees if serious issues with the horses arise. Gales doesn’t need to ask her for help often, though, she said.
“For the most part these kids have seen a lot, so they’re pretty savvy,” Parsons said.
Gales brings years of experience with horses with him. He grew up around them, before coming to Cal Poly as a physics major.
Gales said that after his first year at school, he decided he would rather work with animals than in the science field.
He left for Oklahoma on an internship, where he worked at the Lazy E Ranch for seven months before coming back to school. When he got back to Cal Poly, he switched majors and began volunteering at the Equine Center.
Soon after, the manager position opened up, and so he applied and received the post last May.
In exchange for the time put in at the Equine Center, the student employees receive pay and housing on campus at Herdsman Hall for the women and Poly Canyon Village for the men.
Living on campus, close to the horses, isn’t the only perk. The students also gain valuable experience, Gales said.
“When it comes down to it, the stuff I’m learning here is every bit as practical, if not more than, what I’m learning in school,” Gales said.
The Equine Center offers educational opportunities for animal science students, too, through classes and enterprises such as nutrition, foaling and mare care. Certain classes also require students to volunteer for feeding shifts.
On this particular morning, Gales is joined by two student-volunteers. The students arrive at 6 a.m. and head to the feed barn just as the sky is starting to turn pink at the edges.
At the feed barn, a tractor waits hitched to a trailer loaded with grass, alfalfa and feed bags.
“It’s nice to have light,” Gales said, on his first morning feeding since the daylight savings time change.
The student volunteers climb onto the back of the trailer, while Gales starts up the tractor. One of them, animal science sophomore Annabelle Sorensen, said she prefers these morning feedings, even if she does have to get up early, because the trailer is set up by the evening feeding crew.
“I do morning feedings because we don’t have to stack hay,” Sorensen said.
Gales and the students start by feeding the boarders, horses that have been brought to school by students and are housed in the Equine Center’s facilities. Then, they go from field to field, throwing grass, alfalfa and scoops of feed into the troughs set out for the horses.
At each feeding trough, Gales yells back to the students how much feed to give. While he does this, Gales is also checking to see if any fences need to be repaired, or if any horses are injured.
“Horses are always getting dinged up,” Gales said. “It’s just the way they are, so there’s always something to do.”
Once the feeding rounds are done, Gales takes the volunteers with him to administer antibiotics to several sick foals, and check the temperatures of all the foals in the Equine Center.
None of them are running a fever, so the volunteers head to class, and Gales heads back to the office to do paperwork before he heads to his first class of the day, at 9 a.m. He is constantly balancing school with work.
“One hundred-something horses is a lot to manage, especially when you’re a full-time student, but it’s fun,” Gales said.
His job at the Equine Center also serves as practice for what he would like to be doing full-time once he graduates. While the Equine Center is relatively small compared to most horse ranches, it runs just like professional outfits.
Working at a horse ranch is exactly where Gales wants to be.
“If I could do something like this like I do now — managing a ranch but on a larger scale — I think I would really enjoy that,” Gales said.