Mainely Progress, Fall 2007
Volume 4, Number 2
NEWS ABOUT THE EQUINE PROGRAMS
Our undergraduate student enrollment has almost doubled, to about 160 students, in the last 10 years, which coincides with the rebirth and growth of our equine programs. This relationship may be just coincidental, but it has resulted in changes in our curriculum, to our extra-curricular activities, at the Witter Farm, and to our faculty workloads as we are now each advising about 40 undergraduates, which translates to 55 students each while Stokes is on sabbatical leave. The following article is reprinted with permission of the Bangor Daily News and appeared in their special Horse Farms insert in conjunction with Open Farm Days at the Maine Standardbred breeding farms in October of 2007.
By Debra Bell, Special Sections Writer
Tucked less than a mile from the University of Maine’s Orono campus, the J.F. Witter Farm holds a secret. It’s that there is “life after the track” for the standardbred racehorse.
“We say that ‘after the finish line they’re not finished’,” UMaine Adjunct Professor Nonni Daly explained. “A lot of people have this belief that the horses are dragged off to the glue factory or to slaughter. They aren’t… They’re here.”
Or they’re in barns and stables across the state of Maine living their post-track lives as pleasure horses and breeding stock. According to Daly, who works with the equine science program at UMaine, standardbred horses make the best pleasure horses. She owns two standardbreds: Bruizer’s L’il Star, a gelding currently racing and Hemi, who was deemed not fast enough for prime time on the track and who is being trained as a pleasure horse in Massachusetts.
Standardbred horses are considered intelligent, versatile, friendly, and above all horses with huge hearts. And because the harness racing industry has strong ties to Maine, the university has a lot to gain by studying them, retraining them, and creating an unbreakable bond between research and the track.
Where science meets harness racing
The retraining program began in 1998 when the Witter Farm was renovated. The Witter Center is a 400-acre working farm and part of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station. Daly notes that what was once strictly a research center has become far more — it’s a place for students to gain hands-on knowledge while also advancing research into a breed of horse that’s integral to Maine.
In 1998, an 18-year-old standardbred stallion named Pedrine was the first donated racehorse. Facilitated primarily by the U.S. Trotting Association and the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Association of Maine, the goal was to retrain Pedrine for use as a pleasure horse. Since then, the farm has taken on “UMares” donated by breeders within Maine for retraining and reproductive research. The profit from mares retrained and sold for use as pleasure horses goes back into the Witter Farm program.
And the horses educate the students as well. “Both of our veterinarians here are breeding specialists or theriogenologists,” Daly said. “In February we’re hoping to stand a stallion for a well-known Maine breeding farm — to do collections, and distribute the semen for them, which allows us to earn additional funds to support the equine programs.”
Currently, UMaine receives donated semen to breed the UMares from breeders around the state. Daly said that the breeders who donate semen to UMaine’s UMare program do it because they want to support the program and the breed.
According to Daly, the Animal and Veterinary Science program is one of the fastest growing programs in the university, yet it’s virtually unknown to the outside community. “It’s a jewel in the crown of the university except not enough people know about it,” Daly said.
Students who work at Witter Farm and who take classes in equine science also get a chance to:
Witter Farm offers breeding services to owners and breeders across Maine as a way to earn money and to benefit the harness racing community. Providing breeding services, Daly said, “is another way to get our name out there and let breeders know that they can rely on us for quality service.”
In addition, Daly notes that “anytime we breed our own mares, we try to breed with a stud standing in Maine so we can sell the foal with sire stakes potential and you never know where that will take you.”
Moving students into the limelight
The implications reach far beyond benefiting breeders though. According to UM instructor Melissa Spencer, an equine trainer and owner in Maine who owns a retired standardbred along with her Morgan horses and teaches at Witter, the standardbreds make UMaine students a valuable commodity for veterinary school.
“The standardbreds make it so easy because by the time [the students] apply to colleges, they’ve taken blood, given shots, and so much more,” she said. “You just don’t see that in many undergraduate programs. Maine’s really getting known for that — our students are getting noticed at veterinary programs like Tufts because they really know their way around a horse.”
According to Spencer, the programs at Witter Farm help train the students who want to be trainers or vets as well as the students who just want to have some one-on-one time with horses. In fact, any student can take an equine science class for credit. “We don’t turn anyone away,” she said. “Students can get internships, work studies, and even work in the student equine trainer position.”
The Farm is currently working on putting together a three-person student marketing team — made up of a business major, an agribusiness major, and a equine science major — to advance the horse sales work at Witter. Sarah Manning, who served as the marketing student for Witter last year said that she “learned so much about the industry” from promoting the farm and putting UMares up for sale.
Students will also have an opportunity to work for the farm when the stallion arrives. “In the spring when we will be standing the stallion, we will be hiring two to three students to call mare owners and ask ‘when will your mare be ready to be bred’ and to make the arrangements. It’s a great opportunity in the equine community as well,” said Spencer.
But as if that wasn’t enough, Spencer said that this past summer, she and Dr. Jim Weber took in outside mares and inseminated them to earn extra money for the Farm. The money earned from the breeding will pay for two student positions working with mare owners this spring. “We’re not taking money from the university to support this,” she said.
Taking Witter Farm one step further
And the farm has many additional goals they would like to achieve. According to Spencer they would like to expand services to breeders including embryo transfers and additional breeder services. Additional services also provide the farm a chance to showcase different aspects of breeding to students. Upgrading diagnostic testing for the harness racing industry is another possible application for this program.
And other colleges are taking notice. A group of Tufts students will be attending UMaine this summer to observe and learn about large animal care in a hands-on environment. Another college in Unity will be visiting Witter Farm to watch the vets in action and learn about care of large animals for their potential careers in wildlife ecology or as zoo-keepers or animal facility specialists.
“Where can you go to school and watch a mare give birth, learn about breeding and more?” Manning said.
Among the largest goals Witter Farm has is the creation of a large indoor livestock arena to be shared by the horses, cattle, and sheep UMaine owns. It would also pave the way for competitions and shows to be held plus could benefit other UMaine researchers. The research on racetrack surfaces and how they affect the horses’ legs being spearheaded by Dr. Michael Peterson focuses currently on thoroughbreds but could be applied to the standardbred racing industry. “It’s cutting edge work”, Daly said. “He’s doing for track surfaces and horses what [Dr.] Habib Dagher is doing for wood composites and military applications.”
Regardless of the challenges ahead, the focus now is on studying the retraining and reproductive health of standardbreds, focusing on ways to improve services to breeders and racing owners in state, and to provide badly needed services to advance the harness racing community.
EQUINE PROGRAM WELCOMES NEW RACEHORSE!
It was a bittersweet time at Bangor Raceway on July 4th when the program official retired its racing mare, ONE VINE LADY. She is ten years old and the stresses and strains of racing were beginning to tell on her legs and feet. She had earned time off and a chance to become a pleasure riding mare.
Through the help of graduate and racing trainer, Valerie Grondin, the program has acquired a beautiful five-year-old gray roan, named PEMBROKE WHITEOUT. She is a very competitive girl with a 1:58.1 life mark on a half-mile track and should be a standout for the blue-and-white in the 2008 racing season.
She came to live at Witter Farm on November 17 and will stay with the mare herd and learn some racing lessons from LADY until it is time to go back to the race barns and train down in late winter. Stay tuned and we’ll keep you posted on her season! A “Welcome to Maine” party with a Drill presentation on the Mall is planned for April of 2008.
UMAINE WELCOMES A NEW MARE
In October, well known Maine standardbred breeder and equine program supporter Donald Marean of Hollis, gifted the program with its newest UMare – a three-year-old Maine Standardbred named DAISY TO GO.
She becomes the fourteenth “girl” in the UMare herd, ready to be saddle broken and retrained as a pleasure horse and evaluated for breeding potential as she lives with us. Shown here with sophomore Equine Business Management major, Rebecca Powers, DAISY is an example of a standardbred that shows the strong Morgan Horse influence on the breed.
UMAINE EQUESTRIAN TEAM HAS SUCCESS IN FALL SHOWS
The Equestrian Team, composed of eleven undergraduates, competes in IHSA Shows across New England, against 8-10 other schools like Dartmouth, New Hampshire, Vermont, Colby-Sawyer, and Mount Ida. In two shows this fall, Maine accumulated 17 placement ribbons, which are proudly displayed in the new case on the wall of the warm room at the farm. Riders competed in several classes from Novice on the flat and over fences to Advanced Walk/Trot/Canter Equitation.
Our very best wishes for a happy holiday season to all our friends, alumni, emeriti and supporters wherever you may be. We hope you will have a successful and rewarding 2008.
In our December 2005 issue of Mainely Progress we welcomed Dr. Scott Haskell as our extension veterinarian and director of the Maine Diagnostic Laboratory. Scott initiated some important improvements to the Diagnostic Laboratory but left us in July of 2006. We interviewed four excellent applicants in December to refill that position and hope to offer the position to one of those veterinarians in January 2007.
We will also have another vacancy in the new year. After almost ten years with us as a student or as an employee at the Witter Center, Marsha Hamilton, our Livestock Program Manager and Assistant Farm Manager will leave us on February 1, 2007 to manage, with a view to eventual ownership, the 500 cow dairy owned by Lowell and Karen Piper in Embden, ME. Marsha and her husband Matt are very excited about this opportunity to move closer to their dream of owning and managing their own dairy. This is a bittersweet decision for Marsha however, as she has so many wonderful memories of UMaine and of Witter. She learned a lot in that ten years and has been an important part of teaching our students the science and skills of dairy farm management. We will all miss her and wish her and Matt the very best in the coming years.
Since Question 2 on the November ballot passed by a small majority, $50M will be available competitively for proposals to increase research, development, and economic activity in Maine. We will be writing a proposal for several million dollars to build a new necropsy facility that will allow us to necropsy large animals such as cattle, horses, deer and elk. This will include a carcass rail to a refrigerator for storage and some type of carcass disposal system, which could be an incinerator or a chemical digestion system. We will also include preparation and sampling laboratories, an infection room where we could keep infected research animals or fish, with changing and shower facilities for staff. Thanks for voting “yes” on Question 2.
Image Description: Pembroke Whiteout
Image Description: new mare