SWANTON — It all began with Figure, the first and most famous of all of the Morgan horses.
On Tuesday, animal science students from Missisquoi Valley Union Middle and High School traveled to Weybridge with Superintendent Julie Regimbal and teachers James Messier and Katie Berkelhamer to tour the historic University of Vermont Morgan Horse Farm and breeding center.
In the classroom, the students have been studying the Morgan horse, genetics and how the breed is improved with each generation. They’ve also been studying its importance as an integral part of Vermont’s history, an aspect that gives many Vermonters, like senior Vanessa Kane, a sense of pride.
“It made me sort of proud that we [Vermonters] were the ones who invented this breed,” Kane said. “Horses are my favorite animal… I love how free-spirited they are.”
Morgan horses are Vermont’s state horse, bred and certified in accordance with strict guidelines to keep the bloodlines pure and strong. Like other purebred and heritage breeds, the Morgan horse is bred specifically for certain traits considered desirable in the breed, such as a wide chest, proud stature and “elf-like” pointed ears, barn manager Kristen Stec said.
The students saw the youngest generation of Vermont’s state horses and learned the story of Figure, and why the beloved breed was sought out as everything from a riding horse to a draft team to a war mount in the Civil War. The horses are bright-eyed, proud and courageous, but also dependable and strong.
“A big part of the trip for the students was the history,” Berkelhamer said. “Knowing that the bloodlines of the original Morgan still run through the breed today.”
As the bus pulled into the rounded driveway, the dark, glistening coats of the horses in their paddocks caught the eye.
Along with their stark beauty, the breed is known for its strength, spunk and very social nature. Some of the horses followed the bus along in their pens as the students arrived, curious about the newest visitors.
The Morgan Horse Farm and its Morgans
Upon arriving, the students were greeted by director Margot Smithson and Katie Ballard of the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, New York.
Smithson offered a history on the barn and the farm. The first Morgan horse was owned by Justin Morgan and was named Figure, whose likeness stands in statue-form in the courtyard today, she said.
The Vermont state horse was bred to be versatile enough to draw a carriage or charge in a cavalry. Morgans were shipped across the country for use in agriculture and riding and were a favorite breed during the Civil War for soldiers.
The Morgan Horse Barn was originally built in 1878, and in 1951 UVM became its steward. Today, the farm works in conjunction with the Miner Institute to maintain blood lines and breeding standards that keep the Morgan horse a pure breed with idyllic characteristics.
“This place has a special place in my heart,” Ballard said, as she led the tour down to the “Bingo Ladies,” or retired brood mares who were leisurely grazing in their outdoor pen. “I grew up with Morgans, and I’ve always wanted to work with them.”
Ballard taught the students the importance and science of breeding for specific traits and bloodlines. But just as important, she said, is treating the horses with respect and care, which means retiring them from their breeding program at a proper and comfortable time.
Horses with ideal temperament and characteristics are selected for breeding, while others are gelded and live long, healthy, happy lives grazing in pasture.
Building the perfect Morgan
Students like sophomore Lindsay Sherman learn how to treat horses and draw blood in their Animal Sciences 1 class with Messier, so it’s understandable that Kane and Sherman’s favorite part of the trip was learning the intricate details of how to create the perfect horse.
“It’s amazing that, at one point, the breed was almost completely gone,” Kane said. “Now they’ve made a full recovery.”
The breeding program in conjunction with the Miner Institute works to preserve and improve the Morgan breed, and Ballard walked the students through the process of accquiring the semen of the best horses for artificial insemination into equally perfect mares.
A 26 year-old stallion named Equity, with the help of several barn apprentices, demonstrated how a “phantom” or false mount, was used as a mount for collection. Sometimes the stallions have to be coaxed by the sight or smell of a mare in heat for the procedure, but Equity “knows his job,” they said, and quickly performed.
The semen was then gathered for examination under one of Ballard’s microscopes and spectrometers. Stallions can produce six-billion sperm every day, she said.
“There’s 126 million sperm per milliliter,” Ballard said.
The semen is often extended with the use of a glucose and skim milk base and can be frozen and shipped throughout the country to other farms that hope to cross Equity’s genetics with that of their own horses.
Ideal characteristics include friendly and manageable demeanor, athletic build and a sloped back to carry both a rider and a harness.
The newest generation
The last stop on the tour was to see the results of the high standards practiced in the breeding program.
In one of the upper paddocks surrounded by lush greenery lounged two pregnant mares, while three new mothers grazed in the second with their foals close by. The brood mares had given birth to two colts and a filly, all in excellent health.
As the students approached, several of the mares strolled over to investigate as their shy foals danced around the back of them, bony, graceless and thrilled.
The preservation of one of Vermont’s most treasured assets, the Morgan horse, is kept alive through programs like the ones at the UVM Morgan Horse Farm and programs like the animal sciences courses at MVUMHS.
Students in Berkelhamer’s class are each designing their own “dream facility” and derived inspiration for their projects from places like the Morgan Horse Farn and Hemlock Hill Farm in Shelburne, which is a horse boarding facility. Berkelhamer said they intend to explore other types of farms as well.
Through internship programs, Ballard said those at UVM and the Morgan Horse Farm hope to continue to inspire students to enter various avenues of the equine industry, whether it is training, veterinary science or genetics.
Apprentices at the farm come from around the nation every year, flocking to the elite reputation as one of Vermont’s greatest equine facilities. Sherman said she aspires to be one of the apprentices and said if her parents let her, she intends to apply.
“I think they will,” she said.