ORONO, Maine — When Amy Bologna left her Windsor, Conn., home to go to college, she wasn’t going to stop riding horses. She has had her feet in stirrups since she was 5 years old. She loves animals — enough to become an animal science major. That’s why she chose the University of Maine.
“It’s so hands-on. In most schools, it’s just textbooks. Now I say to people, ‘I’m going to go groom my horse and ride for class today instead of sitting in a lecture hall,’” Bologna said recently as she held a cold metal bit in her hand, warming it before putting it in her mare’s mouth.
Bologna is one of about 20 students in the university’s Standardbred program.
Standardbreds are a breed of horse trained for harness racing at tracks such as Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs. The horses start racing when they are about 2 years old. But once a horse’s racing days are done, it’s not always easy to figure out what to do with the animal. Frequently the horse is still under 10 years old and has plenty of life left.
The trouble with finding new homes for retired racehorses is that they don’t trot and canter like most pleasure horses, which typically makes them less desirable to potential buyers.
A trot requires the horse move its legs in a diagonal way with the left-front and right-rear hooves hitting the ground simultaneously and then the right-front and left-rear at the same time.
Harness racing horses do what’s called a pace, which means they move in a lateral way with the left front and rear hooves hitting the ground simultaneously and then the right front and rear together.
Pace horses have to be retrained to trot and canter to make them desirable as pleasure riding horses.
That’s where UMaine’s equestrian program comes into play.
Turning racehorses into riding horses is a strong tradition in Maine, said program manager Robert Causey.
“The racehorse owners want the horses to have a future as a riding horse,” Causey said.
According to Don Marean, who runs a harness racing stable in Hollis, most Standardbreds in Maine end up being given to people for riding or pets after they retire from the track. Marean prefers donating to the university.
“We like to know where our horses are going to end up when they leave our farm. It’s very important to us. We’re fussy about it. When you give them to the university you don’t have to worry about it,” Marean said. “They just do great work and the students get so much out of it.”
Marean is one of many racehorse owners who donate their retired horses to the university and in exchange get tax write-offs of up to $4,000. At UMaine, veterinary and animal science students take care of the horses and retrain them to be pleasure horses.
“Our goal is to educate the students to take care of the animals. We do the training to give something back to the horse — if we just had them outside eating hay it wouldn’t do much good for them,” Causey said.
After a few years of training, the university then sells the horses to good homes and reinvests the money, about $2,000 per horse, in the program.
That $2,000 doesn’t cover the cost of the horse’s care for the three years the university keeps and trains them. But it’s a sort of reciprocal relationship, according to Causey, who is also a veterinarian and teaches classes at the university. The students learn, the horses get good homes, the previous owners get a tax write-off and peace of mind knowing their horses are doing well.
The university currently has 12 Standardbreds but is looking to add a few more to its stable. In addition to using the horses for teaching and riding, UMaine also does research with the mares.
“When problems appear in the [Maine harness racing] industry we can research them,” Causey said.
For instance, the university’s equine program now is trying to find quick ways to test for infectious diseases so if a horse gets ill at a show where it would be near many other horses, the test could be distributed and the right horses could be quarantined before others get infected.
The University of Maine also is working to learn about how equine uteri fight infection. Researchers on campus also are trying to determine how much strain is placed on Thoroughbred racehorses’ hooves. One study estimates the impact of one hoof hitting the ground at full gallop at about 4,000 pounds.
Having the horses at Witter Farm, at the edge of the Orono campus, allows the students to help with the research in a very real way.
“Universities with a hands-on agricultural program are a rare experience,” Causey said. “It’s so valuable when [students] apply and go to vet school. Our students have a real advantage because of the farm. We have labs too, but here they also get that animal experience.”
But as state and federal governments keep cutting funding for higher education, Causey said UMaine is lucky to still have a farm at all. In the past few years the farm lost one full-time and one part-time staff member because of budget cuts, according to Ed Ashworth, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture. To fight the cuts, Causey and his team are working on grants and private donations to keep the equine program funded.
Because of a shortage of horses, Animal Science student Amy Bologna shares a mare named Ford (race name: Fifth Avenue Sweetart) with another student. Bologna and the other student must clean Ford’s stall daily, do a couple hours-long barn chores every week in addition to riding and their class loads.
“It’s about responsibility and getting along with people,” Causey said. “It makes [students] grow up fast. That’s probably the most important thing they gain from this program. No matter the major, it’s a useful life experience.”