It’s 8:30 a.m. and Gypsy, Carina, Echo and Fanfare are getting ready for class.
An hour ago, they were fed breakfast in the warmth of MSU’s barns, which usually consists of hay and other grains. They’ll need it for the big day of learning ahead of them.
Gypsy, Carina, Echo and Fanfare are not students. They are among the 62 horses MSU keeps on its farms and today, they are being used for Fundamentals of Horsemanship, a class that teaches students how to improve their horsemanship and riding abilities.
Animal science senior Jessica Crane grabs a brush to use on Gypsy. This is how every class begins: each of the four students cleans up their horse before “tacking” them, or adding the necessary riding equipment.
Brushing, tacking, then riding.
“If there's dirt under the tack it can annoy them,” Crane said. “It's like if you had crusted mud on your shoulder and you put a t-shirt on, it's gonna feel nasty and itchy and we want the horses to be as comfortable as possible.”
Its not just about physical comfort, through. Doing this helps create a connection between the horse and the rider. Animal sciences freshman Abby Shaw said that the best way to bond with a horse is to spend time with them – grooming and brushing them. She enjoys spending this time with the horses before getting on.
As the students tack the horses with martingales, saddle pads, western saddles, leg boots and a bridle, their instructor, Paula Hitzler, leans against a nearby barrel with her hands in her pockets, observing.
Occasionally, she shouts out corrections:
“Becca, make sure that you're doing this from the side, from his side, not from directly in front of him. Because if he bolts forward, you'll get knocked down.”
“Go ahead and get one of the bigger pads, that one's kind of short.”
“He's going to be kind of funny about his right ear, so lift that cavesson off and put it over.”
Hiztler, an MSU alumni, has been riding since she was nine and working with horses professionally since she was 18. She came back to MSU in 1989 after the university was in need of a full time farm manager of teaching and research center.
At the time, Hitzler was working in Sonoma, California. MSU had no horse classes – at least not like the one that exists today.
This changed shortly after Hitzler became manager. She's been teaching the class for 32 years.
But while the university has only been teaching classes like this since Hitzler’s arrival, MSU has a long history of breeding horses.
“We're the third oldest Arabian breeding program in the country,” Hitzler said. “They've been breeding Arabian horses since 1938. We have won many, many national championship titles with students, we have been nominated as a top ten breeder of national champions on several occasions, so the quality of the horses is exceptional.”
Hitzler said MSU runs its center like an industry farm, doing everything from breeding horses, shipping semen, foaling up mares, starting two year olds under saddle and showing at a national level.
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“When we have students that take these programs, I'm trying to prepare many of them to go into the industry in some capacity,” Hitzler said.
Not all students that take the class want to work in the horse industry, and not all of them come into class with the same levels of experience. While Crane and Shaw have been riding most of their lives, some have a much more basic understanding of horsemanship and riding skills.
Despite this, all students agree that Hitzler’s expert knowledge is what makes this class so special.
Crane said she learned more from Hitzler in one semester than she did in years of riding beforehand. Shaw attests she learned more from Hitzler on day one than she has from a trainer in her entire life.
Once the horses are tacked up, the students walk them from the main barn over to the indoor training arena. Today, the class is focusing on circling, a skill that Hitzler said is very challenging, since the rider needs to keep their horse bent and forward in order to maneuver them around a cone.
They begin with a warmup and some balancing activities. Hitzler gives notes on skills. She instructs on how students should hold reins as they ride. She corrects their form, telling them to arch their backs, to stay tall.
She arranges the four cones to create a wide oval, which she stands in the middle of while the students practice circling around her.
Just like while tacking, Hitzler shouts advice to the group.
“Think about riding a horse like driving a car – you have to drive it, you can't just sit there and be a passenger. You have to communicate using your legs, your seat, your hands in advance to tell them exactly how you want to go.”
This need for constant communication with the horse is something Hitzler emphasizes throughout the lesson. It's easy, Hitzler said, for students to get frustrated while learning this, especially if they’ve ridden before.
“What's frustrating for students is they've ridden, they've not fallen off very much, so they think they're advanced,” Hitzler said. “My definition of advanced is a lot more in depth than what I think students think of themselves.”
As one student struggles with her horse, Hitzler notices she might be close to crying. This is something Hitzler says is common in this class, but not frowned upon.
Crane, who is taking this class for the third time and is making perfect circles around her cone, speaks up, saying that she cried the first time she tried this skill.
She says she’s fine now and she wore waterproof mascara.
“But if you cry, I cry,” Hitzler said. “That's the problem. So if you're gonna cry, I will have to wear waterproof mascara.”
Once they master circling, everything after that will come much easier, Hitzler said, and by the end of the semester, they will be different students. But to get there, she said it will take a lot of hard work, something Hitzler believes is necessary to succeed in any aspect of life.
A final time, Hitzler speaks to the group:
“Did you know that's a metaphor for life? That if you never are challenged in life, how do you expect to become strong in your character, to have resilience, to know that it's okay to fail and you still can be successful? You have to work through the failure of it. If you quit when you fail, you're going to be quitting your whole life. So all of these things could be a metaphor for how you handle challenges in your life," Hitzler said.
Next class, they’ll all get back on their horses and try again.