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Second to last horse science program in state closes

BY AARON WALKER | DECEMBER 05, 2014 5:00 AM

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After more than four decades of training, riding and raising, the end of an era has come for Kirkwood Community College’s horse-science program.

The change, officials say, is due to low graduation rates and job placement matched with the high price of facility management. The move leaves the state with only one horse-science program, at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, equine industries are most popular in California, Texas, and Florida. That year, the industry generated more than $1.3 billion across the states.

“Really, the bottom line is that demand in this region of folks in this area is just not that high,” said Scott Ermer, the dean of agriculture sciences at Kirkwood. “The job market is tight and tough.

Wages in that industry are not that great, and they don’t support the need for a two-year education for many of the jobs that are in the industry.”

The program began in 1973 and consisted of breeding practices, business management, genetics, performance,  and stable care. Once the last students concludes their studies, Kirkwood will sell its team of horses.

“We have had 26 students graduate from the program in the last three years,” Ermer said. “Of those, we know 15 of them that are working in the industry.”

For many people, it’s more of a hobby rather than a primary source of income, he said.

Administrators did not hastily make the decision.

“These are not things that are taken lightly, and when we make a decision to close a program like this, it’s definitely not made in two seconds,” said Justin Hoehn, a Kirkwood marketing coordinator.  “You have to take into account job demand, graduation rates, costs incurred to run the program, and all of that played into the decision.”

He said that over the years, the college has gained and lost programs while adhering to budgets and adjusting to trends.

Forty-four percent of animal trainers have a high-school diploma or equivalent, 23 percent have less than a high-school diploma, and 17 percent have some college but no degree.

“It’s unfortunate that it happened, but at the same time, as a community college Kirkwood tries to do what’s best for the communities and the students,” Hoehn said. “Sometimes that involves making tough decisions. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality.”

Karen Sartain, who spent a semester in the Kirkwood program, owns and operates Bettendorf’s Country Pleasures stables.

“You don’t learn those things in high school, and you didn’t learn them if you didn’t grow up on a farm,” Sartain said. “Those are lifetimes of knowledge that you need, and Kirkwood covered that.”

Some Iowa City horse enthusiasts expressed disappointment about the decision.

“I think we need to have a good program in the state,” said Bill Coester, the operator of Iowa City’s Winds Reach Farms. “I think it definitely is a loss. All aspects have changed in the horse industry.  There are equestrian programs that operate and have been useful in producing industry professionals.”

Over the years, a number of Kirkwood students have interned at Winds Reach Farms, 4427 Kotts Lane N.E.

“The state needs a good program but has not always had the best reputation,” Coester said.  “That’s why it kind of went downhill.”

The necessity of a degree to excel in the industry is still up for debate.

Pre-vet senior at Iowa State University Allison Lehnen plans on having a career in the industry. She said she hates to say it, but she believes connections and experience can be more beneficial than a degree. 

“If you grew up and were super involved with it I think it’s possible to make it if you have the experience and have people willing to teach you the business,” she said.  “[That] may be why Kirkwood had problems. Experience speaks volumes.”


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