An eye and heart for horses
By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
Fort Hays State University long has been known for its creativity in pioneering new programs for its students.
Curriculum introduced in the agriculture department this semester even has some non-ag majors interested in checking out its horse production class.
"I've already got kids hitting me up, 'Are you going to do that next year? We want to take that class,' " said Bob Keener, instructor of the class.
That's partly because students are getting the chance to work around young wild mustangs firsthand.
As part of a program through the Bureau of Land Management, two FHSU employees -- Keener and university dairy herdsman Stephanie Eckroat -- have adopted three yearling mustangs that are kept at the university farm and worked with each week.
The scheduled time to work with the mustangs is during the 9:30 lab hour Monday mornings.
But, Keener said, most of those 10 students show up periodically throughout the week to work with the colts, who are named Stuart, Bonnie and Clyde.
"A lot of these kids are out here every day," Keener said.
The colts were captured as wild horses from government property in western states and taken to various facilities that break them.
One such facility is the Hutchinson Correction Facility, where prisoners work with the horses and train them for adoption. Approximately 50 horses trained by Hutchinson inmates are on the Mexican Border Patrol.
At Fort Hays, students now can lead the horses with a rope, bridle them, wash them, clean out their hooves and lead them in an exercise called lunging where the horse is led in a circle by a long rope.
"That really calms them," Eckroat said of lunging.
In a recent class, Ellis senior William Poland threw a tarp over Bonnie, one that even covered her head. She barely flinched.
"We try to desensitize them to crazy things like tarps and dog food bags, anything that might spook them in the future," Eckroat said. "Even what might happen if you would take them to a parade in the future ... you try to think of things that might startle them."
Students and horses have come a long way, she said.
"Those colts were wild ... when they came off the chute," Eckroat said. "These kids had done such a good job with them, spending lots of time with them. It's been a really good learning experience for everybody."
Rachel Klein, a junior from Hays, agreed.
"It puts in more of a practical application," Klein said. "We learn it in the classroom, then come out here and put it to use."
Even the chairman of the FHSU agriculture department was made a believer.
"For students to be able to acquire that hands-on aspect of the species itself is very valuable to them; its applied nature of the production science," John Greathouse said. "I was quite impressed by the way these students have attached to these horses and worked with them, gentling them down, making them productive in their future years.
"As an administrator, you always think about the safety issue of your student. I had to rely on Bob and Stephanie, and I trust them totally."
Dexter Hendricks, program manager of the wild horse program at Hutchinson, said he thinks it's a good situation for all involved.
"These colts like a lot of hands-on, a lot of rubbing, a lot of encouragement. They enjoy being a working partner."
Hutchinson is a maintenance and training facility for wild mustangs that come from rangelands in every state west of here that has herds of wild horses. Hutchinson's level is 350, meaning its facility has as many as 350 colts on site at a time.
"We have gotten a lot of attention nationwide, so we have a waiting list," said Hendricks, who said his facility trains and adopts out between 100 and 150 horses a year.