Sarah Ralston, associate professor of animal science at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, established a unique program in 1999, giving students the opportunity to train and handle young horses and to take part in a variety of research projects. At the end of each summer, Ralston and a group of her students travel to ranches in North Dakota and Canada where they pick 12 previously unhandled foals to transport back to New Jersey. The yearlings are shown each year in the Ag Field Day horse show and sold at a private benefit auction the following day. Former horse graduates have gone on to be trained in a variety of disciplines, including hunters, dressage, competitive trail, and driving. This past auction generated a record net amount of over $35,000.
Q: What drew you to work so closely with animals?
A: I love teaching and research and have always been interested in animals. I have had cats and dogs all of my life and have owned and ridden horses since I was 7. My goal had always been to be a veterinarian, but I was accepted into a combined degree program – Veterinary Medical Scientist Training Program – leading to both a V.M.D. and Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, which put me on a more academically oriented path.
Q: What have been some discoveries of your research so far?
A: We have made great strides with our vitamin C supplement research, a continuation of my work on alleviation of transportation stress in horses. We verified that after prolonged transportation stress, supplements of vitamin C twice a day are beneficial for the horses the first few days after arrival. But if we keep giving them the supplement after they have adapted (over five days), it’s detrimental. It doesn’t cause any illness, but their blood vitamin C goes way down once the supplement is stopped. We also investigate the effects of diets on the growth and behavior of young horses. We use only draft cross – “warmblood” – weanlings, which we found gain weight more rapidly and efficiently than is predicted for light horse breed, like Standardbreds or Thoroughbreds. “Warmblood” horses are very popular, but are not studied as much as the light horse breeds, so this is important information.
Q: What made you decide to get your students so involved in your research?
A: I honestly couldn’t get it done without them. They
are absolutely essential to the success of the entire research labor-intensive
program. The young horses need to be fed twice a day, handled, and trained – it
takes a lot of people-power. The students do everything from basic daily
grooming and teaching the young horses their ground manners to helping take and
process blood samples.
Q: Have there been any horses particularly hard to say goodbye to during Ag Field Day auctions?
A: At auction day, there are always a lot of tears; however, the students are usually allowed to visit the horses they helped train, and several have been hired by the purchaser to continue to train their yearling. Other students have bought “their” horses. We have auctioned off over 70 horses, and I know where all but 10 are now. Most are sold to people in New Jersey, while a few have gone to New York or Pennsylvania. I do have favorites each year that I am sorely tempted to bid on.
Q: How much do the young horses usually sell for? What has been the highest amount over the years?
A: In the past the average was between $1,200 and $1,500 per horse. One of the highest has been $6,000. This year, one of our horses, a Hanoverian cross from Canada, went for $11,200. I almost fainted. It was unbelievable. This year’s average selling price was $3,000. We will definitely be getting more of that type of weanling in the future!
Q: What is this process of choosing the foals like, and how can you afford to bring the students along?
A: I take those students signed up to work with me in the fall to select the baby horses. Their trips are paid for by private sponsors who donate $1,200 per student to cover the cost of the trip. This year, there were nine undergrads on the trip. We spend five days at each site. The first day, we select the young horses we think we may want, and work with them for the next four days to ensure we get the best ones. We usually start working with about 10 or more and whittle it down to the six we take from each location. The babies run free and we usually select ones that will come to us and let us touch them.
Q: What do you enjoy most about the program, and what will its future be like?
A: It’s a lot of fun watching students who are absolutely terrified of these young animals become confident and competent in handling them. There are a few bruises once in a while – the horses have very hard feet – but it’s still fun. People are beginning to see we’re getting better at training and selecting the babies, and they are becoming more aware of these really nice animals. As long as we can afford it, I’ll do it. It is a win-win-win situation for the students, the horses and the public.