College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

ISU students have opportunity to learn about, care for baby horses at horse farm

After a few clumsy steps, Quency collapsed into the straw and immediately fell asleep, her mother standing over her protectively. Quency was born Monday morning — the 17th foal to be born this spring at the Iowa State Horse Farm.

The university houses up to 65 horses at a time, including babies, yearlings, broodmares and stallions. Although many are kept at the new Equine Learning Center on Mortensen Road, the Iowa State Horse Farm on campus, nestled between Stange Road and Pammel Drive, is home to several thoroughbreds and quarter horses.

For those new to equine terminology, brood mares are female horses used for primarily breeding purposes, and stallions are male horses that have not been castrated. Yearlings are horses between 1 and 2 years old.

The horse farm contains numerous stalls and several outdoor runs. Behind the barns are eight pens that allow horses to get exercise and fresh air, especially during the spring and summer months. Currently, the barns are at capacity, and nearly every stall and pen are occupied.

“Warm weather and green grass can’t come soon enough,” said Nikki Ferwerda, manager of the horse farm and lecturer in animal science.

Ferwerda said the main purpose of the equine farm is simple — teach students about horses. The animal science program offers a multitude of classes where students can gain practical experience. There’s even a 25-person classroom on-site.

First, there’s a 100-level course for students to understand basic horse handling, and it’s open to any major.

“Anyone can take it,” Ferwerda said. “It’s like Chem 50 for horses.”

Even for students in animal science, it’s a popular course. These days, Ferwerda said students in the animal science program aren’t always coming from farm backgrounds, so they don’t necessarily have a lot of experience with horses when they get to college.

“We need to teach them what’s [involved] in day-to-day life on a farm,” she said. “The [equine] farms are more important now than they’ve ever been.”

There are also classes focused on behavior. The halter breaking lab is a chance for students to work with new babies on socialization and basic training. During the yearling class in summer and fall, students work with immature horses to train them how to walk and trot around a pen, as well as prep them to be sold at auction.

But Ferwerda said the most popular class is the reproduction lab during the spring semester. Students study horse breeding and participate in foaling season from January to May, and are assigned to a mare and assist in her delivery.

All of the foals this year are named after saints, Ferwerda said.

Lucy, Silas, Flora, Della and Winifred are some of the foals living on the horse farm. But Felix, a two-week-old brown foal, is Ferwerda’s favorite. When she walks by his pen, he kicks up his back legs excitedly.

They’re all different, Ferwerda said.

“There’s always a class clown or a serious one,” she said.

Emma Schmitz, sophomore in mechanical engineering, grew up around horses and loves working with them. She started working at the horse barn last fall.

“I just like being with the individual horses and getting to know their personalities,” she said. “[I like being with] all the moms with their babies and watching them be together.”

Schmitz doesn’t mind coming to campus at 6 a.m. to feed the horses, take them outside, clean the stalls and sweep the barns.

“I like taking care of them,” she said. “In the middle of winter when you walk in the barn, and they’re all tucked in eating their hay, it’s nice to know you had a part in making them comfortable.”

Schmitz is pursuing a career in mechanical engineering, but says, “if all goes to plan, I’ll have my own boarding barn and my own horses someday.”

About one-third of all the horses at the Iowa State Horse Farm are client-owned, which means their owners bring them to Iowa State for foaling season. Clients pay a daily boarding rate to the university in order to have their mares deliver their babies on campus.

“Some races require that horses be born in-state,” Ferwerda said.

For their horses to enter certain Iowa competitions, many out of state owners send their horses to Iowa to be born.

Felix’s mother, Launch Light Lady, is a brood mare, but she used to be a racehorse. In fact, most of the adult horses at the equine farm were previously racehorses or show horses.

“Their performance career happened first,” Ferwerda said. “This is kind of their second career.”

The stallions are housed separately from the mares in the horse barn. Newport, a large, dark brown male, is the youngest grandson of famous racehorse Secretariat. And Canaveral, the oldest of the stallions, is 24 years old and still breeding.

“When I first saw Canaveral, I was intimidated by him, and then you get to know his personality,” said Nick Hurd-Johnson, junior in animal science. “It’s cool to [understand] them like that. You can list the things they like and don’t like.”

Hurd-Johnson has been a student employee at the horse farm for almost three years. He had no previous experience with horses before he came to college.

“I was looking for a job before school started, and I started doing chores for Nikki [Ferwerda],” he said. “I fell in love with it.”

Hurd-Johnson decided to major in animal science and focus on horses.

“It’s a lot more than cleaning stalls and giving meds,” he said. “They just have their own personalities, and when you’re doing chores in the morning, you get alone time with them.”

That’s why summer is Hurd-Johnson’s favorite season to work at the horse barns.

“That’s when we do a lot of the sale training, breaking them and getting them ready,” he said. “We’re spending a lot more one-on-one time with them.”

During warm weather, Ferwerda estimates that the horse barn gets more than 100 visitors every day. Guests include welcome families, student groups, international groups and curious students on their way home from class.

Ferwerda admits her job is sometimes chaotic, but to her, it’s worth it.

“I’ve always liked teaching, and I’ve always liked horses,” Ferwerda said. “There’s not a lot of jobs where you get to do both.”

This story was originally written by Elaine Godfrey of the Iowa State Daily.