UK's Equine Science and Management Undergraduate Program Providing Opportunities Through Internships

Posted on Apr 29, 2021
Kassie Rutherford walking a Spy Coast horse on the Aqua Icelander Water Treadmill

In Kentucky, the equine industry remains a top economic driver while touching many different sectors, providing a wealth of intern possibilities.

The use of internships has long been a bridge between students looking to gain valuable work experience and employers looking for perspective employees.

No one knows that better than Savannah Robin who serves as the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment’s Equine Science and Management Undergraduate Program Internship Coordinator.

Her goal is to get as many students as possible into internships in as many different equine-based areas as are available.

“An internship in general is an invaluable experience because the student gets a hands-on opportunity to apply what they're doing and what they've learned in their classrooms,” she said. “We hope that they take the core of what they've learned and then are able to apply it in a real-world setting.”

As well as being the instructor for students involved in the internship program, Robin also teaches two classes, one of which is the Equine Careers class that helps to guide and direct students and provide valuable career advising from their freshman year to their senior year.

“We try to teach them the importance of networking as early as their freshman year, which is a huge piece of the careers class that I teach,” she said. “A lot of times, we're preparing kids for jobs that don't even exist yet, which is really cool. But for them, by the time they get to an internship, we want them to realize they're learning what they do and what they don't like. A lot of our students will walk away knowing that particular job is not for them, or they find it is definitely their path.”

Students may also find they are building a relationship with their intern employer that may enable them to get connected to other opportunities.

“Our employers find our internship program really valuable to them because they are then preparing for the future of the industry,” Robin said. “We have a lot of people in the industry who know that we need to create the next generation of equine industry leaders, and so our internship supervisors get a chance to do that through our program. They get to mentor our students, they get to foster those relationships, and they get to train them, potentially as a future employee.”

Since it began in 2009, the internship program has helped numerous students connect with a multitude of equine-related industries, so gauging the success of the program is important, Robin emphasized.

“With Kentucky’s great reputation in the equine industry, around 72 percent of our students are from out of state because they know this is the best place to be if that is their interest. This means that we need to do a really good job of fostering that relationship with them, so they feel at home and they feel connected,” she said. “This is the ‘Horse Capital of the World,’ but if they don't know how to access those resources, it doesn't do them any good. So, we try to really work with them from their freshman year on to build that community and then keep in touch with them.”

UK Student Kassie Rutherford is spending her internship at Spy Coast Farm’s equine rehabilitation facility. The New Mexico native grew up around horses, but it wasn’t until she had completed a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy that she decided UK was the place to take her love for the animals to the next career level.

“After getting out of the Navy, I did some random jobs, including working at an equine endurance barn, where I was also a dressage groom,” she said. “It was then that I applied to the UK equine program and moved here.”

Rutherford had already received her Associates Degree while serving in the military, so she knew she had a couple of years left in her studies, and Kentucky was the place to make that happen. The internship program has provided with the opportunity to see different aspects of the equine industry.

“I knew a little about the farm and liked the idea of rehabilitation and liked the idea of seeing these animals succeed,” she said.

Rutherford said the experience she has received has been very valuable and very hands-on.

“So, day one, I was walking horses, I was holding horses, and I was able to help Dr. Julie Vargas with procedures,” she said.

Vargas serves as the sports medicine and rehab veterinarian at Spy Coast Farm. She said for students who want to get into the equine industry, the internship program is very valuable to them, as well as employers.

“I think for a lot of people, it's just going to be the door that opens the next door to get to where they want to be,” she said. “How else are you going to know what you want to do for the rest of your life? A student might intern in a spot they didn't think they had an interest in, explore it, and find they really did, or the opposite could be true, and that’s just as important to determine.”

Mackenzie Rockefeller is also interning through the UK program with the Racing Surfaces Testing Lab, which does onsite testing on the different surfaces at tracks across the country, including Keeneland.

Rockefeller began her journey with horses at the age of 11 as a rider and has experienced many jobs related to the industry, including being a summer camp counselor for horse camps and working as a farm hand grooming horses and cleaning stalls.

“In the summer of 2017, I worked in the visitor center or the Kentucky Horse Park, and that was amazing,” she said. “I got to meet people from all over the world and explain Kentucky's horse industry and how it has such a big impact on our economy. So, my entire life, every job I've ever loved, every job I've ever had, was with the equine industry, and it kind of just made sense to me that that's where I needed to be.”

The internship program has helped fortify that feeling for Rockefeller, and being involved in helping to make the track surfaces safer for the horses may be providing the niche she has been looking for.

“While we are at Keeneland doing this testing and research, this information will be helpful to tracks and arenas all over the world, not just for thoroughbreds or just in this state,” she said.

Rockefeller emphasized that the internship program provides a look at many different aspects of the equine industry, many of which may be unknown to prospective students.

“Because I didn't grow up as a child in the industry, or grow up on the racetrack, or grow up with a mom or dad as a trainer, I didn't really know what all the industry had to offer,” she said. “Ms. Robin was able to bring that to our conversation and say, ‘Look, this industry is so broad and so vast. There are so many different opportunities in this industry, and we can find the right one for you.’"

Lauren Olsen is a senior who will be graduating in May from UK with an Equine Science and Management major, and with minors in Agriculture Economics and Business. She is also in the midst of an internship directly with Keeneland but participated in the UK internship program last year.

“I did my ‘official’ internship last year with a trainer and realized that that's not what I wanted to do with my life, and I was in this limbo and stressing out really badly,” she said. So, I talked to Ms. Robin, and I told her I needed guidance in showing me what else is out there."

Robin pointed her in the direction of Jim Pendergest, who is in charge of all of the surfaces at Keeneland, something that turned out to be of interest to Olsen, leading to the internship in which she is currently involved.

“I job shadowed him for a day, and I thought I'd really like it, so we stayed in contact, and now I'm working an internship with him to see if this is what I want,” she said. “This has been extremely valuable to me in helping point me in the direction of what my future could hold, and I hopefully plan to stay within this sector of the industry.”

Robin said the experience these students are getting in their internships is amazing, helping to develop their skills while giving them the opportunity to find that right occupation in an industry that is truly a Kentucky tradition.