In most college courses, students are assigned a textbook. For the Equine Management Cooperative class at the University of Maine, students are assigned a horse. This unique course uses donated Standardbred mares as a teaching tool to allow students the opportunity to train a horse and learn hands-on veterinary techniques. Currently, the JF Witter Center (the UMaine livestock facility) houses 13 mares and one stallion that have all been trained for harness racing but now need a new career.
The Standardbred retraining program at UMaine emerged in 1998, developed by Dr. Robert Causey and Dr. Jim Weber. There is a constant source of suitable horses due to the proximity of the Bangor Raceway where sulky races are held. The Equine program accepts donations of Standardbred mares, under the age of ten, that are sound and have a tractable temperament. Most of them did race and have either been retired, or deemed not competitive enough for racing.
Roadshow Hall, the resident stud, raced for 7 years and earned nearly a half million dollars. His lifetime mark is 1:57:2 which is made even more impressive because it was on a half-mile track which means the horse has to 4 turns to make rather than 2 on an mile track. The University has owned 3 race horses (Venus Of Milo, One Vine Lady and Pembroke Whiteout) since the inception of the program. Any winnings the racing mares have procured have gone right back into the program to care for the horses in the Witter barn.
Training an ex-harness racer to ride is not much different from training any other horse to ride. The biggest hurdle is that the Standardbred have been specifically trained to not canter so they get a little confused when the trainer begins to ask for it. Standardbreds CAN canter, it is a misconception that they don’t. The breed has been genetically focused to have a strong trot or pace, so the quality of the canter sometimes suffers, but they are all capable of cantering and do so naturally.
The UMares, as they are affectionately called, are also used as mounts for the University Drill Team. Riders on the team ride the UMares in performances all over the state at horse shows, racetracks and local fairs. The Drill Team riders and students in the co-op class work in the barn doing daily stable chores. Each week they have training sessions with Cassie Astle, the equine trainer, where the progress of the horse is evaluated and new exercises are assigned for the student trainers to practice during the week.
The success of the program is due to the donors generosity and concern for the horses’ well-being that they are willing to donate the horses rather than try to sell them but also because of the students’ dedication. Many times, students will end up doing extra work with their assigned horses and spend any free time at the barn. The best outcome is when a student becomes so bonded with his or her assigned mare that the horse ends up being purchased by, and “graduating” with that student.
The Standardbred retraining program not only gives the students hands-on experience, but it benefits the horses as well. They get excellent care while in the program and after 3 years are sold to good homes. What’s better than going to school and doing homework on the back of a horse?