In the field behind Penn State’s “New Barn,” a mare whinnies to her wayward foal that has drifted a little too far away for her liking. The foal looks over its shoulder but carries on, obviously unconcerned.
The foal is one of twenty produced during this year’s breeding season and seems perfectly happy in its decades-old home. The “New Barn” and paddock were built in 1972, but they are indeed newer than the University's second barn, built in 1929. Barns don’t need to be high-tech anyway, and plenty of the latest information technologies are used by faculty, staff and students to take care of the University’s herd of Quarter Horses.
Brian Egan, instructor of equine science and horse farm coordinator at Penn State, says the equine science team uses microchips, social media and live-streaming video technologies throughout the life cycle of Penn State’s horses and during the department’s various events.
The equine science minor, a 20- to 22-credit supplement to a student’s major, is the largest offered by the College of Agricultural Sciences. Many of the students are working toward a degree in animal science, but students have come from various disciplines ranging from biology to business.
“The minor is more versatile than people may think,” Egan says. “It’s a science-based program, but we also have courses on marketing and management. One of our classes is in charge of planning and conducting our annual Registered Quarter Horse Sale, where they get to learn the business side of the industry.”
But before the horses are sold, they have to be born.
Horses have been part of Penn State’s history dating back to some of its earliest days as an agriculture college. The University dabbled in raising Morgans, Arabians and draft horses before starting its Quarter Horse breeding program in 1955.
Now consisting solely of Quarter Horses, Penn State’s herd has expanded to about 70, but the number fluctuates as foals are born and then sold two years later. Students assist with the breeding program through the advanced equine production course, which spans the spring foaling season.
“The students monitor the mares closely to try to predict when she’ll foal,” says Ed Jedrzejewski, Penn State vet and barn manager. “When she’s close, the students will take turns staying overnight with her. If she goes into labor, the student will call the others in their group so they can come observe. It’s a really great experience for them to have.”
As much as the students study and analyze and watch the mares to try to predict when they’ll have their babies, it seems the mares themselves will always know best. Jedrzejewski says there’s always a student spending the night in a room next to the mare’s stall, with a small window between them.
He says students report time after time the mare coming to the window the night she’ll foal, pressing her nose against the dusty glass as if checking to see if someone’s watching.
Egan says he often finds out about a new foal being born by logging onto the barn’s Facebook page, where the students usually post birth announcements and pictures before notifying him personally.
One of Penn State’s stallions, PSU Dynamic Krymsun, even has his own Facebook profile. It features event announcements, show results and photos of his offspring. They’ve also held contests to help name the foals.
“That’s just one of the ways social media has changed the way we do things at the barn,” Egan says. “It’s done so much to help us with visibility. Leading up to our annual sale, we do a featured sale horse of the day, and one year we got a message from someone in California interested in one. We didn’t have that kind of reach before.”
Under the spotlight, the babies grow quickly. They’re weaned between four and six months old and shortly before are implanted with a microchip — a tiny device just slightly larger than a grain of wild rice.
“We first started microchipping back in 2007, and now our entire herd is microchipped,” said Jedrzejewski. “The chip contains an ID number, which we have on record so we can always be sure of a horse’s identity.”
Also on record are the horse’s date of birth, age, coloring, white markings and even hair whorls — cowlicks in a horse’s coat that are unique to that horse alone. While most people wouldn’t like being identified by their bad hair days, it’s helpful when it comes to horses.
The microchips are inserted with a syringe halfway up the horse’s neck, between their ears and withers, in the nuchal ligament. Once implanted, the chip can be detected with a special scanner that will display the ID number.
The ID numbers are included on the certificate buyers receive when they purchase a Penn State horse. Many of the University’s horses are sold when they’re two years old at the Registered Quarter Horse Sale, which takes place every year on the last Saturday of the spring semester.
The sale is operated almost entirely by students — they do the marketing, write and send the press releases, maintain the Facebook page and website, create advertisements, and run the live-stream of the event on the website Ustream, where people who can’t attend the event in person can watch on their computers.
Egan and Jedrzejewski both admit it can be difficult for students and staff alike to say goodbye at the end of the year.
“Among other things, the sale teaches students that selling is the lifeblood of this industry,” Egan says. “It can be hard to sell a horse that you’ve known for a while — perhaps since it was born — but it’s the hard reality of the business. Plus, you know that there’s a new bunch coming next year. It’s the same way with students. It’s hard when they leave, but that’s just the way it goes.”
Besides, it’s easy to stay in touch. There’s always Facebook.