Exciting New Equine Program at Central Florida Community College in Ocala

By Shaneen Kohler

It was a small gathering that some might call secretive. It wasn't published in any newspaper and it wasn't advertised. But, the speakers were some of the most powerful people in the horse industry and the attendees were part of a special group.

The Group: Central Florida Community College Equine Science Program, based in Ocala

The Speakers: George Isaacs, Tim Petty, Dr. Bob Bloomer, Mary Phelps-Hathaway and Carola Sanz

Dr. Judith Downer, the associate professor of equine studies at CFCC, set up this "gathering" as a learning experience for the students in the equine program, which had its first graduating class in December 2005. Another set is due to graduate in December 2006, and the classes are starting to fill up, said Dr. Downer. She said they currently have 35 students who have declared majors in the equine program and 80 students attend her six classes.

These business professionals came to Dr. Downer's evening class with the intent to share tips on securing employment in the equine industry and to advise the students on the best way to go about starting your own business.

Each one is personally familiar with what it takes to "make it" and three of the five are particularly interested in seeing all of the students in the program succeed.

Photo: A Line of Power — The Central Florida Community College Equine Science Program allows students to interact with and learn from some of the top names in the equine industry, including (from left): Dr. Judith Downer (professor), George Isaacs, Dr. Bob Bloomer, Tim Petty, Mary Phelps-Hathaway and Carola Sanz. Photo by Shaneen Kohler

By Shaneen Kohler

Why Would Some of the Most Successful People in the Industry Care About the Students at CFCC?

That answer lies with the college's Equine Advisory Board and Dr. Downer, who was instrumental in pulling together its member list that is comprised of the industry's best: George Isaacs, Bridlewood Farm; Hap Proctor, Glen Hill Farm; Richard Kent, Plumley Farms; Nadia Sanan Briggs, Padua Stables; Deborah Henley, Winding Oaks Farm; Gloria Austin, Continental Acres; Dr. Tom Lane, professor emeritis at University of Florida; Dr. Bob Bloomer, Ocala Equine Hospital; Tim Petty, Petty Quarter Horses; Paul Vrotsos, Peterson & Smith Veterinary Hospital; Tom Warriner, Peace River Ranch, and Chester Weber, world-renowned combined driver.

"Our Equine Advisory Board for this program reads like the who's who in the horse industry," said Dr. Downer. "And all have expressed an interest in helping with job placements and recruitment. Their farms are always open for our field trips and students are welcome to visit them and get involved in cooperative programs, as well. You couldn't ask for a more active or supportive board."

By Shaneen Kohler

Meet the Speakers

George Isaacs, Tim Petty, Dr. Bob Bloomer, Mary Phelps-Hathaway and Carola Sanz were the speakers in front of the dozen students, who received both personal and professional advice from the leaders. Isaacs, Petty and Bloomer are members of the Equine Advisory Board at the college.

For the students unaware of the leaders' accomplishments and the incredible opportunity arranged by Dr. Downer, each one gave the students a brief explanation of his or her background.

  • George Isaacs of Bridlewood Farm said his responsibility as the farm's general manager is to "make the farm profitable," which he has done every year he has been employed there as manager. Bridlewood Farm is one of the nation's top Thoroughbred breeding farms and is based in Ocala. "Our primary goal is to sell all of our horses and be a top 10 breeder." Isaacs worked his way through college at the University of Kentucky at a horse farm. "I got a business degree because I thought it would serve me well down the road."
  • Tim Petty owns Petty Quarter Horses, which came about because of a hobby and is now a successful farm with about 100 horses. "We took a hobby that had been a love of my wife's and kids' and moved here nine years ago to breed, raise and show western pleasure horses." Petty said their goal is to raise and sell their stock "as fast as we can." Petty also has a degree in restaurant management and owns four auto dealerships in Michigan.
  • Dr. Bob Bloomer Partner at the Equine Medical Center of Ocala. He started the center in 1997 with Dr. Madison and now they employ 13 vets. Dr. Bloomer graduated in 1981 from the University of Florida.
  • Mary Phelps-Hathaway of Phelps/Hathaway Enterprises Inc. started off as an equine photographer and is now the owner and president of HorsesDaily.com®, DressageDaily.com and PhelpsPhotos.com®, in addition to being a Markel Equine Insurance Agency Representative
  • Carola Sanz is the owner of Horsin Around Gift and Tack Shop, on Route 40 in Ocala. "It has been around for 15 years and I have owned it for five." She was the chief financial officer for a hospital for many years, is a certified public accountant and has a master's in business administration, as well.

When Dr. Downer told the class, "This is a real opportunity for you to talk to some of the leading business professionals in the horse industry," she wasn't kidding.

By Shaneen Kohler

'Bonding' with the Business Pros

"You can never know enough" was the general consensus of the speakers when they gave advice about other skills needed in the horse industry, especially if you are starting your own business. However, "Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur," said Petty. "I think I was such a terrible employee, nobody wanted me. So I had to start my own business," joked Petty, whose invaluable first-hand stories were instructive as well as comical. He told a story about an interview he went on, where the interviewer had a wall full of head photos. When Petty asked him as the end of the interview why he had this collage displayed, he was told that each photo represented an employee who didn't work out. The interviewer wanted a visible reminder of these employees during the interviews so that he didn't hire another person with similar traits. "I didn't get the job," laughed Petty.

Accounting and business skills topped the list of skills needed to start a business. Phelps said she took a college course to learn QuickBooks and ended up hiring the instructor, Penny Peck. "She is still working for me and is the one who does a lot of our web press releases," said Phelps, who also recommended learning to type, being computer savvy and knowing HTML.

Dr. Boomer had to teach himself business skills, even though he had a doctorate degree. "In vet school 20 years go, they did not teach us business at all. It is something that we are all learning now."

Isaacs said he was a "quiet person by nature and had to learn to work with people better."

By Shaneen Kohler

Make It a Success

The speakers also had tips on making your business a success. Phelps recommended hiring good help and treating them well. "Compliments go a long way and being appreciated is important." Dr. Boomer seconded that idea. "No matter what your business, if you have a superior product, someone is going to copy it. The difference is in your employees. Treat them right and get the best."

Petty said he shares profits with his employees. "Pay them the most you can." At Christmas, bonuses are handed out and when one of his horses won a $100,000 class, "we shared that money with our employees. I passed out a lot of checks." He also tries to be firm but fair and doesn't dwell too much on the fact that "almost every employee you have is always looking for a better job. If someone came along and offered them something that was better, they are at least going to listen."

Petty also advised that you should not be afraid of competition. "Competition makes you rise up and be better."

A business plan is a necessity, too. "The IRS is clamping down on hobby businesses," said Petty. "If you are going to start a horse farm, or any other business, get a business plan. If you are in an audit and you don't have a plan to show how it is a profitable business, you won't have to worry about it; they'll decide that for you," he said grimly.

By Shaneen Kohler

Who's Behind It All?

You may already know her name, if you are in the horse industry. She has competed on the dressage circuit for decades, with her most famous mount being Dux (by Diamond DVE and out of Floretta ROR by Fleuret DH), a Danish warmblood she bought when he was 11. "He took me to all levels," said Dr. Downer, "including Grand Prix." She said a photo of her horse was used on the magazine, USDF Connection, in 1999 and was also used to promote the sale of commemorative bricks. Dux in now 20 and living the retired life at Dr. Downer's Starry Night Farm in Ocala.

Dr. Downer's list of accomplishments includes United States Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medals and the title of judge. She is an "L" graduate and was accepted into the small "r" program, which she will be beginning this year.

She is also the sole full-time equine professor at CFCC.

She has a doctorate in animal science and for 20 years worked in the animal health industry, doing research on veterinary pharmaceuticals. When she moved to Ocala four years ago, she became an independent consultant on veterinary pharmaceuticals and was on the initial Equine Advisory Board at the college. When the faculty position opened up, it presented an opportunity. "I decided to apply," said Dr. Downer. "It is a bit of a change for me to go from industry to academia," but I have learned a lot. "Being in this program has exposed me to the great diversity out there. In the business class, we wrote down all the jobs in the horse industry. We filled up three blackboards. I think the students were amazed at how many jobs we could think of."

By Shaneen Kohler

The Only Program of Its Kind in Florida

Florida's horse business is thriving, but you wouldn't know it to look at the list of colleges in the state that offer equine-related degrees. Currently, the program at CFCC is the only equine-related program in the state that offers an Equine Assistant Manager certificate and a two-year degree program in equine studies, where riding is not a requirement. "We are trying to put together a database of information on similar degrees in the nation and are finding that most of the programs are riding type programs," said Dr. Downer. "That is not what we are about.

"Being involved in the horse industry is a business. Successful people will approach it that way, not as a hobby. That is what we are trying to teach our students," said Dr. Downer about the program, which also offers an associate's in animal sciences.

Combined with the location, in the heart of Florida's horse county, the growth of the program is almost inevitable. Dr. Downer is already preparing to increase the roster. "I have been developing a list of people who could join our teaching team. I have identified 5-6 people in the equine community who have the ability to be a college professor," said Dr. Downer. "We are in the hiring process now."

The location has really helped with this process, considering the number of leaders in the equine industry who live in the area. It is not something that is lost on the students either, who get to meet the leaders, intern with them and visit their businesses and farms. Dr. Downer sees that as one of the real benefits of the program. "Some of the most successful people in equine business, that is what we have to offer the students."

By Shaneen Kohler

Thinking It Might Be for You?

The students who make up the equine-related classes at the college "are a very mixed bag," said Dr. Downer. "Some are fresh out of high school, trying to find what they want to do. The other half are mid-career people and others who are trying to get an education and advance. I even have some people in their 60s."

CFCC has long had a grooming class, equine communication class and massage class, but the new program is fully accredited and most of the credits are transferable. "We are in the process of developing articulation agreements with other schools to see if we can work out arrangements," said Dr. Downer.

If you want to get a feel for the type of information you would be covering if you signed up, some of the books the program uses are: "Illustrated Atlas of Clinical Equine Anatomy and Common Disorders of the Horse" by Ronald Riegel and Susan Hakola, "Feeding and Care of the Horse" by Lon D. Lewis, "Understanding Horse Behavior" by Sue McDonnell and "Horseman's Veterinary Encyclopedia." In addition to covering the text, the students use a teaching lab at the University of Florida research unit just north of Ocala, watch demonstrations, get involved hands-on and even get to spend some time with Dr. Downer's horses, which have "become guinea pigs," she laughed.

In a nutshell, "People really like our location, here in central Florida. I think they are seeing it as a benefit to have their students take classes at our school," said Dr. Downer. "A lot is going to come down the pike in the next couple of years."

For details on the program, call (352) 854-CFCC ext. 1220 or visit GoCFCC.com.