Midway University Equine Program on the Rise

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Enrollment at Midway University has exploded in recent years Katie Petrunyak

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Tiani Ibbotson is looking forward to her senior year at Midway University as she prepares to launch her career in the Thoroughbred industry.

Three years ago, she moved from the Channel Island of Jersey to join the equine program at the private university located outside of Lexington, Kentucky. While she considered many different colleges around the world, this one stuck out because of the unique program tailored to her career goals. After graduating next year with a degree in Equine Studies with a focus on Equine Rehabilitation, Ibbotson hopes to take what she has learned at college to her career in the racing world.

“Midway University was perfect for me because the classes you have in the equine program are very specific in targeting different areas of education,” she said. “Not only do you have the basic anatomy classes, but you also have classes like Eastern Medicine, which is really interesting to learn different things like traditional Chinese medicine. These are classes that a lot of other colleges don't include in their equine program. It's really interesting to get an overall view of the entire equine world and learn how different people do different things.”

Located in the heart of horse country within walking distance to the small-town community of Midway, the equine program at Midway University is one of just a few in the nation to house an on-campus, working horse farm. With 160 acres and over 30 horses to tend to, students are in the barns each morning and afternoon, including on weekends and holidays, to complete daily chores.

With an emphasis on hands-on learning, most of the program's classes are held outside of the traditional classroom space. This fall, they will be opening a new, 18-stall barn with a built-in, 40-by-60 foot equine classroom to provide even more opportunity for practical experiences for their students.

Midway University's Dean of the School of Business, Equine and Sport Studies Mark Gill said the real-life situations their students go through daily have led to an increasing demand for their graduates as employees.

“In the last several years, we have had 100% of our students fully employed in the equine industry upon graduation,” Gill said. “One of the reasons why our students are so sought after is that they have a great deal of experience by the time they leave our farm. We're able to bring horses into the equine classroom and have hands-on activities as part of the instruction. Students learn how to drive tractors. They can back up horse trailers. They're taking horses to and from lessons throughout the day. They're involved in every aspect of running our farm.”

“One of the things that is really important in the equine industry is work ethic,” he continued. “We impart that on our freshman and our students quickly learn that they're willing to work at the level expected in the equine industry.”

Asked what applicable skills she has learned during her time at Midway, Ibbotson rattled off a lengthy list.

“Anything from wrapping and bandaging legs, giving IV and IM [injections], knowing when to deworm, knowing which medications are used for what, the anatomy of a horse, rehabilitation modalities and a whole load of other things that really help someone going into that career.”

Students are required to complete an internship during their four years in the program to gain additional experience and make connections in their specific area of interest. Last year, Ibbotson interned at Margaux Farm and spent time working in their rehabilitation program.

The basis of Midway University's growing equine program is their on-campus, in-person program, which currently has about 120 students and includes three different pathways: equine science, equine management and equine rehabilitation. In addition, their MBA program with a concentration in equine management is geared toward professionals in the equine industry moving into managerial roles. This fall, they are also launching a new, fully-online Bachelor of Science degree in Equine Business and Sales.

While the university in its entirety has seen record growth in recent years, it wasn't long ago that the college was facing millions of dollars in debt and serious enrollment decline.

Students gain hands-on experience working with the 37-horse herd at Midway University | Katie Petrunyak

John Marsden, Ph.D., stepped on as President in 2013. He implemented several major changes, the first being a transition to co-education. Prior to 2015, the school was the only women's college remaining in Kentucky. Since the transition, total enrollment has nearly doubled from under 1,000 students to over 1,800 last year. The name of the school was also changed from Midway College to Midway University to reflect expanding graduate programs.

With the increase in enrollment, Marsden turned his attention to campus improvements. One of the institution's oldest buildings from the mid-19th century was converted into a third residence hall. The campus also benefitted from the addition of an athletic field house, an admissions welcome center, a baseball stadium and tennis courts.

“All of this was done without incurring any debt,” Marsden said. “Rising debt levels and decreasing enrollment are two of the biggest challenges among private colleges in the United States, but we have been paying down our debt. We've paid it down 38%.”

Marsden added that despite the improvements, Midway University remains financially accessible to prospective students.

“We are one of the most affordable institutions in the state,” he said. “Our graduate programs are the most affordable in Central Kentucky and of the 18 private colleges in the state, our traditional daytime program is the fifth most affordable.”

This year, Midway University is celebrating its 175th anniversary at their annual Spotlight Awards on Thursday, May 26. The funds from this event support ongoing academic programing and student scholarships.  With this year's theme of 'Making History,' they will be honoring two equine industry leaders.

“As part our Spotlight Awards, we honor two individuals,” Marsden explained. “The first award that we give out is called the Pinkerton Vision Award. This year it will be given to Shannon Arvin, who is making history as the first female president of Keeneland. The second individual we are honoring with the Legacy Award, which goes to someone who has made a difference with time, talent and treasure at Midway University. That will be awarded to former trustee and horseman Tracy Farmer.”

John Stuart, founder of Bluegrass Thoroughbred Services, is a current member of the Board of Trustees at Midway University and is looking forward to the institution's bright future.

“I've learned what a truly impressive job President Marsden and his team have done in the past six years to make this school a university that is going places,” Stuart said. “Our horse community probably is not aware of the quality of the equine program at Midway. If we are going to produce enough foals to fill future race cards, we need equine-educated young people to employ in the local community.”

Members of the equine community in and around Lexington have been an essential piece of the equation in Midway University's recent success. Gill said that the experiences and access students in the equine program receive are some of the most influential factors for prospective students.

“Thoroughbred farms have graciously given our students unparalleled access, whether they're coming to campus to speak or inviting students to go to their farms and observe how their operation works,” he said. “We really look at Midway University as a partner with the Thoroughbred industry, and we're proud of the fact that this is really the Thoroughbred capital of the world. We want to help provide the workforce that will continue the Thoroughbred industry's growth in this area.”

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