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Culver Academies horsemanship students learn more than riding

Tom Coyne

Honors students must take veterinary science, sculpture

March 23, 2023

Horsemanship students at Culver Academies who want to graduate with honors learn more than how to ride and care for horses, they also must pass classes in Equine Veterinary Science and Equine Sculpture.

Capt. Sean “Skip” Nicholls, Culver Academies’ director of horsemanship, said both classes offer students important perspectives.

“The veterinary class is important because they learn the anatomy of the horse. It’s crucial to understand the machinery you are using, how it operates, how it works, because it will give you a greater appreciation of the equine beast as you ride it and you care for it,” Nicholls said. “It’s essential to know where certain parts are because it helps you with recognition of muscle groups, recognition of fitness work, recognition of fitting of equipment. It makes absolute sense.”

He said the sculpture class helps students focus more on the form of a horse.

“I like art in its purest form. I think sculpture is the purest form in my mind. Paintings are always personal opinion and taste, where a sculpture of something is usually quite accurate,” he said.


A Culver student sculpts while using a horse as a model.


Students say the classes helped them. Elisabeth Vickrey ’23 describes the Equine Veterinary Science class as one of her “all-time favorite classes.”

“Because I want to be a vet. So, I found it so interesting,” she said. “It really helped to get to know the anatomy of a horse and all the issues the horses have. I think it helps students who don’t know a lot about horses to understand why they do what they do.”

Payton Kovanda ’23 said her sister, Dakota ’22, recommended she take the two classes. She said the sculpture class helped her better understand how horses move.

“We went through the muscle portion of the leg. It was so interesting to see how many different muscles work together to make one small movement happen,” she said. “It was a lot more in-depth than I was expecting.”

She said she’s become even more attuned to horses after taking the veterinary class.

“Because we learned about a lot of different injuries and illnesses. It was crucial for me to see how I should inspect a horse before and after I ride,” she said. “That's always been like a big part of what I do. But I learned a lot more about what I should look out for and how I can keep the horse healthy.”

Vickrey said both classes helped make her a better rider, especially the veterinary class.

“We talked about what would happen if you're not balanced. If your weight is shifted, then the whole horse’s back is shifted and that can affect the way they walk, trot and canter,” she said.

She said the veterinary science class reinforced her desire to become a veterinarian.

Kristine Myers ’75 is a master instructor of science at Culver who also teaches biology and molecular biology and Frontiers of our Universe, where students study the physical environments of deep space and the deep sea. She developed the one-term Equine Veterinary Science class about a decade ago.

Myers said that before she introduced the Veterinary Science course, most of what horsemanship students learned was “what to do when they’re on the back of a horse.”

Some students wanted to learn more about the horses, and those seeking to honor in horsemanship had to give in-depth presentations. Myers said many of the presentations were inaccurate when it came to health care and behavior of horses, which is why she decided to create the course.

“We wanted to bridge departments, so this was a natural bridge between horsemanship and science. We offered this class as a science elective,” she said.

Myers said her goal is for students to understand a horse’s needs, the limitations of a horse and how riders can jeopardize a horse’s health by asking more from the horse than they are capable of doing.

“I want them aware of what they're doing to a horse because they want to jump higher, run faster and what that does to the horse as far as its overall health,” she said. “You see so many horses that have career-ending injuries that could have been prevented had those riders been more aware of what they're actually doing.”

Different breeds have different abilities and different limitations, she said.

Myers said she patterns the class after a freshman level college veterinary science course. She creates her own workbook each term because she can’t find a textbook she likes.


Culver students paint the skeletons on horses so they can visualize how the horse moves. 


She starts off teaching evolution, then moves to the different horse breeds and then students do a project on which breed of horse best fits a sport the student chooses. The class then moves into anatomy and the students paint the skeleton on a horse and walk the horse around to see how it moves. They then study behavior by observing and documenting the interaction between a group of horses that are turned out together into a paddock.

“They talk a lot. You just have t0 learn to speak horse,” Myers said. “So, I teach them how to speak horse.”

The class then moves into hoof structure, lameness, abnormalities in their leg structure that might limit what they could possibly do or what they are suitable for.

“Because they do come with a lot of deformities,” Myers said.

They also learn about nutrition and the different kinds of feed and hay that are grown in different regions.

Finally, students have to design their ideal stable that best suits the breed of horse and the sport that they chose.

“So if it's carriage driving, they have to have a carriage house in addition to their stable. If they're barrel racing, they don’t have to worry about the carriage house,” she said.

Students also must determine how they’re going to maintain the stable, what kind of fencing they’re going to use and environmental concerns, such as what they’re going to do with the manure.

The students then have to devise schedules for shoeing, dental health and vaccinations based on where they live.

“Florida is going to have a different vaccination schedule than we have here. What kind of infectious diseases are more common out West, for example, than what's over here? They have to research that,” she said. “Then, how are they going to minimize – you don’t eliminate, you just minimize – parasites,” she said. “And what kind of de-worming schedule are they going to have?”

Kovanda found this particularly interesting.

“I didn't know that certain illnesses were more prone to happen to our horses here,” she said.

They also learn how to take horses' vitals, such as pulse, heart rate, and temperature. She also shows the students how to give an injection, but she doesn’t have the students give injections.

She said most students who take the course don’t know much about basic horse care.

“My goal is that when they go to horsemanship, they're changing their behaviors and treating that horse like the sentient being that it is,” she said.

Chris Carrillo, Ph.D., chair of the science department at Culver Academies, said it helps students when they can apply science to a field they are passionate about.

“They can see why biology, chemistry, physics is important, because they’re applying it to something they’re interested in,” he said. “That’s a great hook at the end of their science career here at Culver to understand how they can use science. That’s important.”


Jack Williams, a master instuctor of visual arts, teaches the Equine Sculpture class, which he created.


The Equine Sculpture class was developed by Jack Williams, a master instructor of visual arts who has been at Culver since 2002. Williams said he had proposed the class for several years and Ed Little, then director of horsemanship operations, was instrumental in getting the class going.  Head of Schools John Buxton approved the class in 2011.

Little suggested that the semester-long class, which meets twice a week, be a requirement for students who want to honor in horsemanship.

Williams said despite the name of the course, students often are “shocked” to learn they will be producing an actual sculpture of a horse.

“Almost none of them had any prior sculpture experience. A lot of them had no prior art-making experience. I’m aware of that and I build that into the nature of the course,” Williams said.

He starts off by training them in foundations of drawing.

“I try to build their confidence through a series of drawing exercises,” he said.

He then moves into teaching angles, then anatomy and they use oil-based clay to form the muscles they are studying.

“That helps them understand the interior structures and interior forms,” he said.

Williams said he thinks one of the biggest benefits of the class is it forces students to focus.

“I think it’s important that they begin to direct their attention away from screens and cellphones and TikTok videos and toward a process, in this case, sculpture,” he said. “I’m trying to get them to learn how to be attentive, to sustain attention not just for a few minutes but for 12, 13, 14 weeks for a single project. Most of them haven't spent that kind of time on any one particular project.”

Before sculpting, there is a skeleton of a horse and the students attach all the muscles, so they can understand the horse’s anatomy.


The sculpture class meets at the Culver stables and uses a tethered horse as a model. The carts allow the students to move to see the horse from different perspectives..


While sculpting, the class meets at the stables and uses a tethered horse as a model. The students have carts that allow them to move around the horse so they can get different perspectives.

“You work more or less continuously making adjustments as you go and dealing with issues of proportions and placements of the different features the different anatomical landmarks and gradually begin to develop from the inside out,” Williams said. “Starting with the wire armature, you begin to develop the relationship of forms.”

Vickrey said having an actual horse as a model makes the class more interesting.

“Because the horse would move around and we’d have to move with the horse,” she said. “It was a lot cooler than sculpting from a painting. Because we can move in all directions, at all angles.”  

Kim Asenbeck ’12, who was in the initial Equine Sculpture class, said friends with interest in horses are surprised when she shows them pictures of her sculpting a horse while using a horse as a model.

“It’s hard for them to believe that a high school would, No. 1, have 100 horses, and, No. 2, that I had equine sculpture in high school,” she said. “For me it was just the perfect melding of all these interests and just to an amazing space and an amazing opportunity.”

Asenbeck, who is a software engineer for Aurora, a self-driving vehicle company in Seattle, said spending time in the studios with friends learning about art was among the highlights of her time at Culver.

Myers said she believes the Equine Sculpture class complements her Veterinary Science class.

“They really learn the anatomy of a horse as far as their skeletal structure and they learn how to put the soft tissue over that framework that we call the skeleton,” she said. “They also learn the proper proportions of the horses.”

Although the class is required for students seeking honors in horsemanship, it is open to any student. There is usually a maximum of six students per class.

For students who worried that they lack art talent, Williams explains that the true subject is not the horse but rather simple relationships, which anyone can grasp with a bit of effort.

“The relationships are issues of directions or angles of forms, the sizes or the proportions of forms, and spaces and the placement on a kind of Cartesian grid,” he said. “They think they have no artistic ability. By the end of the course, I see so many smiles.”

Williams, who doesn’t ride, said students have told him they’ve changed how they ride horses after taking his class.

“They begin to see just how fragile certain parts of the horse can be when they really start to delve into the anatomical structure, the bone structure and then the way the musculature fits over it in layers,” Williams said.

Williams, who also teaches Foundations of Drawing and Painting, Drawing II and Painting II, said the class is unique.

“To my knowledge, there is no other institution with that type of course for a semester,” he said. “It’s such an opportunity for students who are horsemen and horsewomen.”


Equine sculpture is a required class for students seeking honors in horsemanship..

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