The two women slowly approach the animal, knowing that at any moment it could kick back and send one of them flying. The untamed horse looks unsure of what to do in this new environment; just three days ago, it was roaming in a foot of late-March Oregon snow.
In a matter of seconds, one of the girls swings a fence open, pinning the horse to a wall. The other comes up behind the horse and pushes up against the animal to keep him from making any quick movements and possibly injuring itself.
The second is dairy science sophomore Kayla James, and she knows some people may think she is crazy for putting herself in a physical matchup against the 1,000-pound animal. James has been bucked twice before, but said its her love for horses that keeps her coming back to work with and learn about them. Now, she is working as part of a two-quarter-long class aimed to “break,” or train, untamed horses.
Students could go through their entire Cal Poly career and never see the dozens of horses on campus. But for those that spend their time working at the Cal Poly Equine Center, it is the ultimate Learn By Doing experience.
“You’re not going to get any Learn By Doing better than what we do up here,” longtime horse enthusiast and animal science professor Pete Agalos said. “You might have other programs down on campus that do stuff like this, but you can’t get any better.”
A 15-minute walk up the north side of campus leads to the equine center. It is a road some students travel nearly every day as they make their way to the enterprise classes taught there.
Students such as James have the opportunity to work in these classes at the equine unit. This quarter, Agalos is teaching ASCI 490, an enterprise in which students work with and train horses that have little or no experience dealing with humans.
It is a relatively new class Agalos created to raise money for the animal science department. By selling the horses they train at the end of summer, students will make money that goes to providing more resources to the department.
“I’m trying to do some things to maintain the program as it is,” Agalos said, “and bring down some of the price.”
Breaking a horse is a long process and varies for each individual animal, James said. The horse she initially trapped calmed down within a few minutes, and James was soon able to touch him without any resistance. Just a few yards away, animal science senior Shea Cosart was not having quite as much luck.
The horse Cosart was leading up to the pen would stop and stutter every few feet, obviously uncomfortable with its surroundings. But even when the animal shook it’s head and almost hit Cosart, she said his behavior was actually not that bad.
Having started two horses of her own outside of class, she said she has seen much worse.
“It’s about getting a feel for my specific horse and knowing how to train horses starting at different levels,” Cosart said.
During the enterprise class, students take a horse from its original untrained state and aim to ride it just months later. It begins with basic techniques such as those James and Cosart worked on during the first week of spring quarter. Tethering the horse against a fence and getting it comfortable being around humans is the first step of many in the process to train the animal.
Cosart said she knows some people think the way she and her classmates work with horses could border on animal cruelty, but she said they just do not understand what is necessary to be successful in the training process.
“The basic fundamental of training really is getting them to give to pressure and understand we’re the dominant one,” Cosart said. “What we use is not hurting them, it’s just encouraging them to give to pressure. We wouldn’t go full force.”
Cosart and other students like her spend dozens of hours at the center every week. She said she’s worked in several different enterprise classes during her two years at Cal Poly, including a program where students help mares give birth to foals, or baby horses. She said Agalos provides opportunities for those at the equine center who ask for them, and what the students do there is rewarding for both the horses and the humans involved.
“It teaches you responsibility, because you’re up there 20 hours per week,” James said. “You’re either working or checking in on a horse and taking care of a horse. You have to have the basic ability and have experience and be dedicated to it.”