By Bill Finley
With an eye on bolstering the available pool of labor, several Kentucky horse farms, along with other industry organizations, have come together and donated $322,000 to the Fayette County Public Schools, which will be creating an all-encompassing equine training program for middle school students and high school students attending the Locust Trace AgriScience Center in Lexington.
While Fayette County might seem like a natural breeding ground for future farm employees that wasn’t necessarily the case, said Chauncey Morris, the executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, which spearheaded the effort to develop the program. Morris said that many students in the area had little interaction with horses and never considered horse racing as a career opportunity. The goal of the program was to not only create a source of jobs for local residents but to provide farms with a new pool of skilled labor, something that has been in short supply in recent years.
“We started having conversations about this 2 ½ years ago and we knew we wanted to provide more work opportunities for a local labor pool,” Morris said. “Once we started to know more about Locust Trace and (principal) Anne DeMott we saw that we had a huge asset, bricks and mortar, in our backyard where we had an opportunity to provide funding that would create more of a local labor source that would meet out workforce needs and accomplish a lot of goals.”
Locust Trace opened in 2011 and has always had equine-related classes, but the donation will lead to a large scale expansion of the program, which will, for the first time, also include middle school students who may end up at Locust Trace. DeMott estimates that as many as 220 students on the high school level will take part in the program.
“With us now working with the middle schools, we are reaching students earlier and creating an excitement and an enthusiasm for the industry,” DeMott said.
Another goal of the program will be to create jobs for minority students in racing, an industry that has recognized it needs to become more diverse. DeMott said that 30 percent of her students are minorities, but the goal is to bring more into the program. In attempt to do so, Locust Trace is working with Ron Mack, who operates the Legacy Equine Academy. The Legacy Equine Academy was formed in 2017 with the goal of promoting the equine and agriculture industries to minority students.
“It’s a beautiful story that’s being written,” Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Manny Caulk said of the program. “That’s a story that is going to be inclusive of a very diverse group of students, racially, socio-economically. That’s important in today’s times when you are talking about racial and social justice. That’s what is top of mind for all of us. When they look at the role African Americans have played (in horse racing), I think they will be proud of that history. If you are proud of that sort of history and take ownership of it, you’re going to say ‘You know what? I can choose this profession too.'”
The program is geared to for the individual needs and desires of each student and to make them as marketable as possible. In additional to horsemanship skills, students will be taught such things as landscaping and farm maintenance. A curriculum will be established for those who want to go to work on a farm right after high school and for those who want to attend college or pursue a career in the veterinary field.
“My goal is that we have something for every learner, no matter what their end goal is or their ability level,” DeMott said.
While many of the students may start out in entry level jobs, Morris said there’s no reason why they can’t rise through the ranks at a major farm.
“Hands on horsemanship is often vital to getting to the next level,” Morris said. ” Many of our senior managers have been folks that stated at the entry level. Because of the size and scope of the industry here we are always constantly going to have a churn of labor. We need this because people are needed at every single level. If they have proper training at the entry level they can ascend much more swiftly. An industry is oftentimes only as productive and efficient as its labor force is. In the back of our minds, we have been mindful of this. If we are doing our jobs right there is always going to be a need that needs to be met here.”
The industry’s commitment to Locust Trace is for three years, but Morris is convinced that the program will prove to be so successful that it will become a long-term answer to an industry problem, finding good, reliable and skilled workers.
“This is the beginning of the story, not the end of it,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts and it will probably take us some time to get our heads around all this. We are very grateful that we have the opportunity to do this. It’s going to be the first step and, hopefully, we will see a lot of returns. Central Kentucky has been very good to this industry. There is a humanitarian motivation here in that we are trying to give back to the community, as well. When it all comes together, we should also should be producing a well-rounded student, a graduate of Locust Trace, that if they choose to go to work in thoroughbred industry they will come in with training and a skill set.”