In the warmth of a sunny spring morning March 29 in Georgetown, Ky., Kentucky Horse Park executive director John Nicholson and Georgetown College president William Crouch cut the ceremonial ribbon to open the Equine Scholars Center, a recently acquired facility for the college's Equine Scholar Program.
Upon his retirement from various volunteer positions at the college, Larry Smith echoed the desires of Crouch to create a program with a high quality liberal education, combined with an introduction to the horse business. Starting out as a dinner conversation, the idea has developed into a reality two years ago with Smith and Crouch as the founders and catalysts. Now, with a new facility and a full staff, the two men hope the program will be enhanced in both quality and quantity.
"We're trying to reflect all aspects of the equine business," said Smith. "This couldn't have happened without a welcoming industry, which tells me we had a good idea in what we were trying to do."
To complete the program, students will be required to complete an internship, though they need not have an equine-related major or minor. Past and current scholars have majored in business, communications, pre-vet, pre-med, public relations, computer science, math, art, and drama. Those in the program are eligible for a scholarship and an equine distinction on their transcripts.
"Our students are working with everyone from bloodstock agents, trainers, and farm managers to lawyers and vets," said Smith. "They'll come out of here knowing all the people. If they go into the (horse) business, they ought to go in with their eyes open," said Smith. He added that the program represents all breeds and all facets of the equine industry. "After two years, we're fully staffed, we have a building and now it's time to step aside and make it a real, live thing that's here forever."
This year's program includes 14 scholars, and Smith hopes to see the number double by the next fall enrollment.
"Our program is unique to the region and most colleges in the country in that it's not curriculum-based and it's not riding-based," said Jen Budge, who has recently replaced Smith as the program's executive director. Instead, she continued, the program pairs the academic and horse-related interests of each student. "We give them internships, outing experiences, and networking opportunities within the horse industry to connect with whatever facet they're most interested in. We also bring in lecturers from around the country to speak with them not only about the horse industry, but the business skills they need to take it to the next level."
Kentucky State Sen. Damon Thayer, representing the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, was present and spoke at the conference as a supporter of the program. Thayer is also chairman of the Horse Farming Subcommittee in Frankfort.
"This is a red letter day for Georgetown College," he said. "I wish that there was an Equine Scholars Program 21 years ago when I was a horse-crazy kid growing up in Michigan. I've spent my entire career in the Thoroughbred business and it's a wonderful way to make a living and a wonderful way, if you're a horse-lover like I am, to live your life.
"This program is attracting kids from all over the country to central Kentucky. Hopefully many of them, after graduating, will stay in Kentucky and be proactive members of our community and the horse industry."
All breeds, not just Thoroughbreds, he pointed out, are critical to the horse industry in Kentucky. He believes there is a labor market for a variety of organizations pertaining individual interests.
The Horse Park, an educational partner of the program, provides internships, job shadowing, and volunteer opportunities for the scholars.
"These are extraordinary young people," said Nicholson. "That should give you a good feeling about the future of not only the equine industry, but also our country and our state. I've always thought that young people who work with and love horses have a certain degree of citizenship that doesn't exist anywhere else."
Crouch noted how the program would help the college with geographic diversity by attracting students worldwide with equine interests.
"The key to economic development is through education," he said. He expressed his desire for the program to eventually acquire a library for research and recreational opportunities, as well as an equine scholar and prospective scholar dormitory to host both students and those who have traveled to Kentucky for horse-specific internships.
In addition to Budge, Randa Ramer has also been recently added to the Equine Scholar Program staff as director of scholars. Her duties will include coordinating internships and outings, assisting with recruitment efforts, and monitoring academic progress.