11/16/2001 1:00AM

Worthy equine education program


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Kentucky Equine Management Internships began classes in January 2000, and already the program is claiming converts for the sport and helping to promote its importance to the larger community. Jackie Smith, comptroller at Juddmonte Farms and treasurer for KEMI, worked with Garrett O'Rourke, Juddmonte's farm manager, to begin the program.

"[This is] Garrett's baby," said Smith. "It's based on the Irish National Stud program and is located here in Lexington because the farms here have the best the industry has to offer.

"And the goals for the course are twofold. First, we wanted to attract students from respected equine programs and use this course to open doors of experience and understanding about our industry. Second, we wanted to develop a more qualified workforce by giving students the benefit of some of our best horsemen."

The KEMI program isn't some touchy-feely vacation for young people who want to see great horses. The selection process is careful, and the work the students undertake - both in classes and on the farms - is significant. The six-month course begins with an intensive, weeklong immersion into the horse world of the Bluegrass. Then the students get to work. They work more than 50 hours per week, and most live on the farms so that they can be on call for emergencies.

As a result, they are exposed to a great range of experiences during their internships. Smith said, "Our goal is that anyone who graduates from KEMI should be looked on as a horseman. So we're not putting students in offices but out on the farms getting hands-on experience. We believe that is the basis for everyone being solidly grounded in practical horsemanship."

In addition to working on the farms, the KEMI students have homework as part of a college-credit program that is fully endorsed by the University of Kentucky, and Lexington Community College has developed an equine business course to complement the program. "Also, weekly lectures bring in the best vets, farm managers, and bloodstock agents," Smith said, "so that students are aware of all aspects of the business. Many have said to me, 'I had no idea of the opportunities in this industry.' "

The lack of information about the horse racing and breeding in most areas of the country is one of the great obstacles that the sport faces, but a program such as this, educating young people who go out and become ambassadors for racing, is one way to seed the country with better knowledge and understanding.

O'Rourke said, "Although one of the goals is to improve overall horsemanship, it doesn't matter if the people who complete the KEMI program become dentists or lawyers. They don't have to be farm managers immediately, but if they get this experience and exposure to our industry and go on to own or manage a farm in New Jersey, Idaho, or wherever, we've spread the right sort of skills and understanding that helps to cultivate participants in our sport."

Taking primarily juniors and seniors, KEMI sends out graduates who are poised to take their first step in the horse business. From only four groups of interns, KEMI has had 80 students from 44 colleges and universities. Of those, 40 percent are in Kentucky working in some capacity within the horse business, and another 25 percent are in horse-related work elsewhere.

Since this is an educational program, with some colleges giving 12 hours of credit for completion of the course, Smith said, "We try to choose farms with an educational interest." Nor is the program of benefit to only one party. Tom Evans, owner of Trackside Farm and employer of some KEMI participants, said that "this program is definitely a two-way street. I'm confident the students get a benefit from it, but so do the farms. Employing the students is worthwhile for the farms, but it is also fun to have these younger people around, because they are so enthusiastic and eager to learn about the business and how things are done in central Kentucky."

Although the students pay $1,000 in tuition for the course, this covers only the basic costs, and donations from farms, individuals, and organizations cover the larger expenses of operating such a program. Smith said, "We rely entirely on contributions, but these charitable donations make the industry better for everyone."

Clearly the rewards of this program are considerable, and one of the goals of the board of directors for KEMI is to expand the program so that it can spread the good word about racing across the country and even around the world. As Smith said, "If we want to improve the sport and make more people interested in racing, we need to get everyone on board. That's what KEMI tries to do from an educational standpoint."

The program is a nonprofit organization, and donations to KEMI are tax-deductible.