A Mustang’s Four-year Degree

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When training horses, one has to communicate with them the way they communicate with each other.  Earning their respect and trust and giving correction and rewards has to be in a vocabulary they understand.  Everything has to be in horse terms.  Ironically, as my rescue mustang, India, turns five, I can see how much her learning resembles a human four-year college degree.

Freshman Year

Enroll in college at eleven months old.  College prep courses completed are, “Haltering,” “Leading,” “Picking-up Feet” and “Introduction to Tying.”  New horse students all take two years of lower division work and two years upper division.  That is, two years ground work, exercises, games, and desensitization and two years of riding.

One has to learn the ropes and develop some skills in the General Education curriculum.  What is learned first supports the rest of the college career.  The “Desensitization/Sacking-out” program involves important lessons that help one relate to the environment, equipment, people, and riding.  A freshman horse even gets lead ropes and girths placed around their barrel as an “Intro to Saddling” practicum.

Other required classes are “Groundwork,” “How to Move Your Feet,” and “Yielding to Pressure.”   Also, one can expect to take a few field trips to the trail.

Sophomore Year

During the first semester of the second year of college, a horse consolidates and expands the coursework taken as a freshman and refines their foot work, movement, and response to cues.  A sophomore learns to accept a saddle, with the help of their desensitization prerequisite.  A student may even make the Dean’s List for not bucking!  After this milestone, all unmounted groundwork proceeds under saddle.

During the second semester it may seem to a horse that the Professor has gotten funny ideas about positioning himself over their back, while standing next to a fence.  He also acts out compulsive rituals like waving his cowboy hat all around and carrying an open umbrella when it’s not raining.  What could he be up to?  Given these strange developments, a college student might even consider changing their major.

Junior Year

Upper-division work commences, now it’s all in-depth study in, Trail Riding, the most popular major on campus.  All is well, but it seems like the Professor just won’t get off your back!

Fall semester junior classes include “Bridling” and “Introduction to Riding.”  Excuse me, Riding?  Well, turns out, it’s not as bad as it sounds, and besides, it’s a prerequisite for “Walking 101.”  Learning how to move and balance the teacher on one’s back starts slowly, but sometimes horse students feel the need to pour on the speed right away.

At the end of this semester, third-year students are “hot to trot.”  The spring semester coursework begins with “Intro to Cantering” and “Arena Patterns.”  Students’ practical skills now include walk, trot, and canter.  However, for some it is still walk, trot, buck, and canter.  Those in Western Studies are researching the “jog” and “lope.”

Senior Year

The fourth year is a balance between partying (like in the old days) and completing some serious training.  Everyone, professors included, are looking forward to graduation.  There’s more class work in “Intermediate Cantering,” “Loping” and “Trail Riding” and even a chance to pick up an elective in “Neck Reining.”

As one becomes more confident, a horse practices his or her skills in the real world — out on the trail.  One’s future plans include transitioning to the world of work and being independent, meaning riding with a group and alone.


In the case of my mare, India, graduation came and went without much Pomp and Circumstance.  Soon after her fifth birthday and completion of her fourth year of “higher education” she started her career as a working trail guide horse.  Luckily, she made some good social connections, while at college.  In fact, she was able to get a job with her favorite Professor, me.

Dr. Ken Marlborough is also known as The Horse Professor. He has taught English and Western riding in Iowa and California since 1995. He also wrote and illustrated the book,Trail Riding. He began his career in the equine industry as a Trail Guide in 1985 and has worked in this capacity since that time. He trains horses using an approach that emphasises learning in the horse while earning their trust and respect. Ken, sometimes called “Doc” by his students, earned his Ph.D. in Education at the University of Iowa, focusing on “learning by doing.” One of the areas he researched was college internships in the equine industry. He earned an A.A.S. degree in Horse Science at Kirkwood College, specialising in colt starting, and received teaching credentials in Equine Science, Education and Psychology, while in Iowa. Ken writes as a columnist for heartofahorse.com; a charity that focuses on maintaining and stimulating the unwavering well-being of horses in America.

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