A pasture of 'professors'
The University of Arizona's teaching herd provides College of Veterinary Medicine students education straight from the horses' mouths.
Dominique Williams grew up with a "healthy fear" of horses. They are large, prone to skittishness and slightly unpredictable.
"A lot of people call horses big cats, and I've found that to be true," Williams said. "They startle easily, and if they're startled, I am going to get concerned. For me, it was fight or flight."
Despite her initial misgivings, Williams experienced fear's transformation into burgeoning respect thanks to the time she spent working with the horses, sheep and cattle that comprise the teaching herd living at the University of Arizona's Campus Agricultural Center.
The Campus Agricultural Center is a 160-acre research, teaching and extension facility located several miles north of UArizona's main campus and is part of the agriculture and technology-focused Arizona Experiment Station. The center supports the College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences, the university's statewide Cooperative Extension system and a variety of interdisciplinary centers, labs and institutes.
The center houses a variety of sites and resources, including an agricultural research center, animal science teaching facilities, a controlled environment agricultural center, the College of Veterinary Medicine Equine Center, a food product and safety laboratory, greenhouses, the Tucson Village Farm and Pima County Cooperative Extension.
The agricultural center is also home to the college's teaching herd, comprised in part of 26 horses and a donkey, the locally famous "Churro the Burro." Separate from the horses are 10 permanent, on-site cattle that are joined by several dozen more in the summer, and about 40 sheep.
While the teaching herd is a favorite sightseeing stop for visitors and locals alike, Dr. Lara Shreve, assistant professor of practice and herd veterinarian, said the animals' primary purpose is as a teaching tool for students. Aside from learning the basics of animal husbandry and handling, and more advanced techniques, Shreve said the herd helps less experienced students like Williams become more accustomed to larger animals.
"It would not be an overstatement to say that it is invaluable for these students to come out here and have these experiences with these animals," Shreve said. "It increases their medical knowledge and expedites their learning, and shows students what a normal horse, sheep and cow look like.
"These experiences also give students confidence in being around these animals, even just being in their presence. In a normal veterinary program, you don't normally get to touch an animal until the middle or end of your third year. We have our students out here on day one, working with and touching these animals. It really reminds them why they're in the program."
Now empowered, Williams helps newer students become acclimated to the herd's horses – and even spends weekends working with Dr. Sarah Eaton, associate professor of practice, to better reinforce her learning.
She has even joined the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
"I am not completely over my fear, but I have a healthy respect for large animals now," Williams said. "I give a lot of thanks for that to Dr. Eaton, the staff and even the techs. They all put in the extra effort and time outside of class for one-on-ones, and those are some of my defining experiences."
Maintaining the flock
Caring for a herd of cattle, sheep and horses is hard work – a task performed by animal care manager Skyler Bentley and her team of dedicated techs and animal care professionals. Staff follow regulated routines to maintain the herd’s health and happiness and work closely with Shreve to identify and treat any potential medical issues.
Work starts early in the morning, when staff perform wellness checks and examine the property and then progress to grooming and handling, depending on the weather and specific needs of the animals. Staff also schedule regular health checks and perform animal husbandry tasks such as hoof trimmings as needed.
While Bentley and her team handle the bulk of herd maintenance, students are invited to volunteer for extra time working with the animals.
"Not everyone grows up with these animals, so we have students coming into the program who have never handled a sheep before and may just discover how much they really like it," Bentley said. "They may want to become large animal vets after they find out they are interested in bovine medicine. These animals are points of access to hands-on experience with what the students' passions are, and what they may want to focus on in their studies."
The first group of horses to establish the herd at the agricultural center came as a result of a partnership between UArizona and the White Stallion dude ranch. Sheep were sourced from the Animal Science program, and cattle were donated by dairies throughout the state. New additions to the herd are closely vetted by Shreve, who said she generally looks for retired animals that are calmer and happier around people.
While disposition is a major factor in selecting a new animal for the teaching herd, Shreve said she also considers an animal's medical state. On-site faculty and equipment are capable of dealing with most chronic illnesses, Shreve said, but there are limitations. Most commonly, they treat metabolic conditions in horses and manage pain and movement as all of the animals age.
When one of the animals in the teaching herd does approach the end of its life, Bentley, Shreve and other experts will discuss potential treatment options based on equipment and available resources. Once a recommendation has been made, the team will contact the attending veterinarian at University Animal Care, which manages UArizona's various animal facilities and oversees the campus-wide animal care and use program. The attending veterinarian will then weigh in on each situation.
"Any of the treatment you can get at a regular veterinary clinic, we can do for the most part," Shreve said. "We have diagnostic equipment like an X-ray machine, an ultrasound, an endoscope. We can do quite a bit here on site for these animals."
College of Veterinary Medicine Dean Dr. Julie Funk said the teaching herd is vital to the college's goal of preparing career-ready veterinarians.
"Hands-on experiences with live animals are a great way to anchor learning in a real-world setting," Funk said. "Students got into this field because they love animals, and the ability to spend some time with live animals and enjoy that also helps the learning process – and I think that it helps our students’ well-being, too."
First-year students at the college visit the agricultural center and its teaching herd early in their academic journey. Those first few trips teach general handling skills, such as how to work around the animals and how to halter and lead a horse, as well as the basics of animal husbandry and physical examination techniques. Second-year students work with faculty from the college's clinical skills department on more specialized procedures, such as ophthalmological and neurological exams.
Second-year students specifically interested in equine medicine can also learn more advanced techniques, such as nasogastric intubation, perineural blocks, placing IV catheters, and performing ultrasounds on limbs and X-rays on live animals.
For Williams, an Air Force veteran who studied criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, the hands-on learning with the teaching herd was exactly what she needed to catch up to veterinary medicine classmates who started the program with more extensive clinic experience.
"I feel like they are preparing us to become great practitioners, and I am really happy that I chose this school," Williams said.
While Williams found inner strength and knowledge working with the teaching herd horses, Kira Carhart likes to work with the flock of sheep, helping her fellow students acclimate and tend to the flighty animals.
Carhart knew she wanted to be a veterinarian from the moment she realized animal doctors existed and set off on her professional journey as a young girl watching veterinarians make guest appearances on the hit television show "Zoboomafoo." She worked with horses and herd animals in community college and as an undergraduate at California State University, Chico – and even competed as a rodeo athlete.
Now a second-year student at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Carhart spends part of her academic and free time at the Campus Agricultural Center helping tend to the sheep, even going so far as to facilitate different hands-on experiences for other students, such as vaccination clinics and hoof trimmings.
"I think the whole goal in life is to leave places better than when we were there, and helping build these herds into better teaching models and teaching animals for future students is one way I can contribute," she said. "The animals are already great as they are, but I think the better we can leave the school – especially as a new program – the better the school will be in the future and the better the reputation the school will build."
Sometimes, Carhart and the other students just spend time in a courtyard with the younger lambs to help the timid creatures socialize, a practice she said is vital to their function as herd animals and as educational tools.
"Sheep are pretty flighty creatures, and getting them socialized will help them to be better animal professors for future vet students," Carhart said. "We go out and handle the sheep and feed them Cheerios. They love Cheerios."
Carhart grew up around horses, spent time with cattle in California and worked as a small animal veterinary technician. She chose to focus on the teaching herd's sheep population to best fill in gaps in her knowledge. But whether she is working with horses, sheep or cows, Carhart said the hands-on opportunities provide invaluable experience.
Carhart added that the time she spends at the agricultural center, and with the teaching herd, not only reinforces her classroom learning but better prepares her for interactions with future clients.
"It's a lot easier to relate what we're learning on paper to real life, because I've seen it before," she said. "I am building better habits for better patient care in the future."
Carhart plans to pursue zoological medicine in order to contribute to species diversity, help animals on the brink of extinction through breeding programs, and educate the public about wildlife and its value.
While she does not plan to work with horses in the future, Williams said the time she has spent with the teaching herd has shown her just how much pride and care goes into owning large animals. She hopes to one day open her own mobile clinic to provide services to companion animals and eventually become a professor.
TopicsTeaching and Students
University of Arizona in the News