Animal Science 141 is more about the warm gloves than the notebooks, more about remembering to bring a hat than a pen.
We’re talking draft-horse driving, and a Michigan State University class last month hitched students with horses in an outdoor laboratory despite the February cold.
The lead teacher is listed as Cara O’Connor, but let’s face it: The head instructor is really Colonel, a 12-year-old Belgian draft horse with hooves the size of pasta bowls.
Colonel was handing out lessons that morning at the MSU Horse Research and Teaching Center, where the windchill hit 9 degrees.
The gelding pulled his head back every time a student tried to slip a bit into his mouth. It wasn’t much of a flinch.
He moved only about an inch, just enough to frustrate the nearby human standing on a step stool.
“If you don’t do it right, he won’t let you do it,” 22-year-old lab assistant Jordan Hewitt said, coaching the student. “See how it’s hurting his ear? He doesn’t like it.”
The class is in its fourth year at MSU, and there are five heavy horses and about as many students participating in the semester that began in January.
“I love these guys,” said pre-veterinary student Angie Davison, who drove a horse cart for the first time that day. “I’m set on getting one.”
A horse such as Colonel costs close to $5,000.
Davison, 18, climbed into the cart to sit next to Hewitt. Hewitt handed her the reins.
“This pony belongs to you,” she said.
Davison gripped the reins too loosely at first. They flopped around, offering no control over the 1,960-pound horse in front of her. She choked up on them so she could feel when Colonel tugged with his muzzle.
“Colonel,” Davison said, letting the horse know she was talking to him and no one else. “Step up.”
And with that, Colonel moved forward across the packed snow.
All the driving horses know their names, as well as a handful of verbal commands such as “gee” for right, “haw” for left and the all-important “whoa.”
Davison drove Colonel in a large loop around the research grounds. It amounted to less than a quarter mile. At the end, she jumped down onto the snow, exhilarated by the experience of control.
“So many things can go wrong,” she said, “and you’re kind of scared.”
Her classmate Tracy Petzke, 22, nodded.
“It’s crazy that an animal that big will listen to commands,” Petzke said.
Many of the students hope to be veterinarians. They sign up to work with the draft horses for the hands-on experience and simply to be around animals.
Kallie Ashcraft, 18, has ridden horses since she was 9 and misses them now that she’s at MSU. Class time is her chance to be near the animal she loves, and she has her favorite: Bob, an older black Percheron gelding.
Bob didn’t get picked to drive and resented every moment of it, banging his hoof against the wall of his stall in protest.
Each horse has a personality. Greta is grumpy, Lucky plays with zippers and tassels, and Bob, well, Bob is quirky. He doesn’t like to be separated from Buck, who did get picked to drive that day.
Like a family dog or cat, Bob is quick to show he’s a character, and that’s what Ashcraft likes about him.
“I live in the dorm, so I can’t have a pet anymore,” she said. “I like being out with the horses.”