After a two-year absence, the Reproduction Clinic at the UC Davis Animal Science Department's Horse Barn returns Feb. 9-13. Along with the school's Horse Day, typically held in October, the Clinic is one of two annual opportunities for the general public to share in the cool stuff equine-focused animal science students get to learn from and do every day. The Clinic's return puts the school and its unique Horse Barn program in a well-deserved spotlight as one of the nation's top opportunities for students and horse enthusiasts to get hands-on breeding experience and knowledge.
Working with stallions is part of the curriculum and because of that participants in the three-and-a-half day Reproduction Clinic do need horse handling experience. Otherwise it is intended for those with varying degrees of breeding knowledge and experience. Mornings are reserved for lectures and, after lunch, participants break into small groups for hands-on work in the lab and with the stallions and mares. A maximum of 20 people are accepted, on a first come, first-served basis. The hands-on experience facilitated by the small group size makes UC Davis' program unique compared to lecture-dominated programs for large groups that are offered by other universities. "With only 20 people, we can do and try a lot more," notes Horse Barn manager Joel Viloria.
1940's photo of the Animal Science Horse Barn.
Past attendees have come to the Clinic for several reasons. "Some are preparing to start their own breeding program and others own a stallion or mare and want to better understand the work their veterinarian does with them." Joel also sees people who are getting back into the breeding world after an absence. Often, they are familiar with live cover methods but need to get savvy about artificial insemination techniques that dominate breeding practices for most horses.
The Horse Barn's horses and equipment are the stuff of a breeding enthusiast's dream. The school's herd of roughly 40 includes six stallions, several broodmares and, come spring if all goes well, 13 foals. During the clinic, participants can choose what they want to focus on. "They can choose which stallion, what type of artificial vagina, or go inside a mare to feel what that's like," Joel explains. The horses are all part of the Animal Science Department's teaching program, so they are used to the activity.
Stallion-related course topics include collection, processing and handling fresh and cooled semen, semen shipping and advanced reproduction techniques. On the mare side, participants will learn about estrus detection and manipulation, artificial insemination, pregnancy and parturition (birthing), and the use of ultrasound in the
Mare and foal in one of our foaling stalls.
In addition to what they learn about breeding, clinic participants will gain a renewed appreciation for what goes on at the Horse Barn. They will work with a new crew of production interns, a group of 11 students this year whose lives will revolve around the Horse Barn's inhabitants. Selected applicants sign on for a two-term program, January through June, during which they learn while doing all the tasks necessary to keep the busy breeding endeavor going. "We treat them like they were
in a real world commercial breeding program," Joel explains. "Our goal is that they be equipped to go to a big breeding facility and have all the necessary skills."
UC Davis senior Ashton Broman was an intern last year. She loved the program so much that she applied for and was awarded the paid post of Horse Barn breeding manager this year. "As an intern, we got to do things that usually only vets are allowed to do: palpations, rectal ultrasounding and collecting semen, for example." They tracked and manipulated mares' estrogen cycles and managed their teasing, among many tasks.
Percheron Mare at Graduation 2010
An intern's schedule is not for the faint of heart. The program requires a 20-hour per week commitment, but for most it's much more. Ashton estimates she put in closer to 40 hours, and not much of it on a predictable schedule. During foaling season, Foal Alert devices notify the on-duty interns that a mare's big moment is near. Other interns are invited to get to the barn quick. Because they are prey animals, mares most often foal at night, Ashton points out. "It's good because it usually doesn't happen when you're in class, but you can get a little tired!" she laughs.
An applicant to Davis' school of veterinary medicine, Ashton has a head start on subjects in which most vet school students won't have prior hands-on experience. About 25 percent of the Horse Barn interns go onto UC Davis' highly competitive veterinary school, and many pursue their Animal Science degree en route to a breeding and/or barn manager career. Ashton will find out in February if she got into vet school this year. If not, she'll reapply next year. Whatever the outcome, her Horse Barn experience has helped crystallize her career ambitions. "I love equine reproduction," she enthuses. "It's always a different experience every time you go out. And you get to work with all different breeds of horses."
Equine Faculty & Historic Facility
UC Davis' stallions reflect the diversity Ashton mentions. The line-up includes three Quarter Horse sires: Dainty Olena, Little Doc Belle and Plain Ole Freckle; the Selle Francais sporthorse Bas Blanc; plus one very famous Mammoth Jack, Action Jackson, and his 3-year-old son, UCD Actions Protege. Familiar to most mule aficionados, Action Jackson is a Mule Days Versatility Hall of Fame inductee who has sired offspring who've won in all disciplines, including racing. All the stallions and mares were donated to UC Davis, mostly through friendships and connections.
Student milking a mare for colostrum.
Foals produced at the Horse Barn are offered for sale at an auction held during Production Day in June. A few are weanlings, but most are yearlings who have a head start in ways of the world, Ashton explains. "They've been trained to trailer load, to have their face and whiskers clipped, to be washed, walked on the hot walker and lunged in a round pen." They are too young to have been ridden, of course, but most have spent some time with a saddle on their back.
In addition to breeding their own horses in the course of instruction, the Horse Barn also provides breeding services for outside stallions and mares and offers its stallions to outside breeders. These are commercial ventures to help the Horse Barn break even financially and to give students real-world experience.
A lot of California's equestrian heritage is housed in the Horse Barn. It began in the early 1910s as a carriage house for draft horses and mules used in agricultural work for the University. According to the Horse Barn's website, "It later became a remount station for the US Army, standing several stallions including the Thoroughbred stallion Gunrock, son of Rock Sand and relative to the famed Man O'War. Gunrock started as the mascot for the men's basketball team in 1924 and later served as the official mascot for the university. The barn also served as a successful Thoroughbred breeding operation from the 1930s through the 1960s."
The Horse Barn is one of the oldest original structures on campus, but inside is all the latest equipment required in a commercial breeding facility. The breeding shed, foaling stalls, a mare motel and pastures and an exercise arena and equipment facilitate all phases of breeding and handling young horses. A large arena is used by several riding UC Davis riding clubs and for shows.
For more information on the Horse Barn and the Reproduction Clinic, visit www.animalscience.ucdavis.edu/horsebarn.