For the 42 students in Cal Poly’s foaling program during winter and spring quarters, it’s the ultimate in hands-on learning.
“I’ve been able to see two mares foal out, and I was surprised at how quick of a process it is,” student Kelsey Hooper said. “You start to see signs that they’re restless, and after the water breaks, it’s less than 15 minutes before they have the baby. It’s super fast.”
Students are solely responsible for the care of mares and foals — everything from the breeding and foaling of the mares to halter breaking and saddling the foals, said Joy Altermatt, the instructor who oversees the program. Three managers assist with the scheduling and logistics, which can pose a challenge.
As part of the class, two students are assigned to a mare that’s about to give birth and must keep watch in three- or four-hour blocks at a time.
“It’s a 24/7 vigil,” Altermatt said.
The foals, in particular, can be tricky, Hooper said.
“You have to learn to grab the foals, keep them still and work with them,” she said. “Sometimes, you have ones that are pretty wild. You have to get over the fear of getting kicked. Go for it and jump right in.”
Courage isn’t the only attribute necessary to get through the program. It takes diligence, responsibility and accountability to care for the horses, who really are “the professors,” Altermatt said.
Students — many of whom have had little to no experience with large animals — are often rewarded for their efforts with job offers to do foaling at local horse farms.
“We get thrown in there right away, and that’s just a great way to learn,” Hooper said. “Experience is everything.”