As the sun clears the top of the mountain, class is already in session at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. But books aren’t required for this class — spurs are. Instead of a brick-and-mortar building, the classroom is three round pens and a covered arena. Rather than pens and pencils, students hold lunge lines and reins.

Students arrive at the Oppenheimer Family Equine Center at about 7 a.m. After cleaning their stalls, they saddle their 2-year-old horses for the colt-starting class, academically known as Quarter Horse Enterprise.

Photo by Molly Virginia Morris Photography

The students are training these horses for the annual Cal Poly Performance Horse Sale, one of the most successful collegiate horse sales in the country. The highest-earning horse for the 2022 sale brought $43,000 and was trained by Cal Poly student Robee Knoch. Thirty-one horses in the 2021 sale brought in more than $420,000.

The success of their sales stems from the Cal Poly Equine Science program. The program embraces the university’s motto: “Learn by doing.” Students do exactly that. They are involved in every aspect of raising the university horses.

“You can go from breeding the horse to foaling the horse to halter-breaking,” says Christian Toy, the most recent student manager of Quarter Horse Enterprise. “Then, eventually, you can train it. You can do it from beginning to end.”

Students are encouraged to gain hands-on experience to prepare for their futures in the horse industry.

The Breeding

Cal Poly has its own breeding lab, foaling barn and stallion barn. The stallion barn is home to the university studs Hot Pepper Cat and Backdoor Cat. Both are sons of High Brow Cat, a National Cutting Horse Association champion sire with more than $86 million in offspring earnings.

The university also has their own herd of broodmares. Each are typically housed in the Equine Center pastures until the mare is ready to foal. Then, they will be moved to the foaling barn, which has stalls built specifically for foaling in mind and equipped with monitoring cameras.

Photo by Molly Virginia Morris Photography

The breeding lab is the classroom for Breeding Enterprise, a class where students can collect semen from the university studs, artificially inseminate a mare, conduct ultrasounds and assist in embryo transfers.

“I have already started talking with the breeding manager this year about potential crosses for our mares next year,” Toy says. “We’ve been fortunate to get donated breedings from some of the top cutting and cow horse stallions.”

Last year, the class received a donated breeding from Call Me Mitch, a son of Metallic Cat, who is ridden and trained by Phillip Ralls and has lifetime earnings of more than $275,000. The list of sires available to the students’ breeding program also includes Brother Jackson, a National Reined Cow Horse and American Quarter Horse Association champion sire, and VS Code Blue, sire of multiple AQHA and American Paint Horse Association world champions.

Cal Poly horses will have “CP” in front of their registered names to indicate they were bred, born and raised on university grounds. Students have gained firsthand experience with that horse since day one. A Bar P, the university’s brand, will mark the left shoulder of each Cal Poly horse.

Photo by Molly Virginia Morris Photography

If a horse was not born on the grounds, then it was hand-selected by Lou Moore-Jacobsen, the Quarter Horse Enterprise instructor who, from her 40 years of experience, has more than 20 APHA and AQHA championships.

“We work with L.A. Waters Ranch at Utopia, Texas, every year, and we go to the Reno and the Snaffle Bit futurity sales and pick a few up,” Moore-Jacobsen says. “We’ve also bought some in Texas at cutting futurity sales.”

The Training

Ultimately, the horses are being picked for Quarter Horse Enterprise, a spring semester class where students train a 2- or 3-year-old to sell in the Cal Poly Performance Horse Sale.

There are two prerequisites to Quarter Horse Enterprise: an intermediate riding class, academically known as Equine Human Communication, and a fall semester colt starting class, Equine Behavior Modification.

Students are training horses for the Cal Poly Performance Horse Sale, one of the most successful collegiate horse sales in the country.
Photo by Molly Virginia Morris Photography

In Equine Human Communication, students are introduced to the basics of working with a young horse. They will ground drive, lunge and hobble older horses to obtain a feel before being sent into the fire with a younger horse.

Every fall semester, the equine program will bring in outside horses for students in the Equine Behavior Modification class. The horses are 2- to 3-year-old stock types from clients paying the university to have them started. Each outside horse will receive 10 weeks, or about 50 days, from a student.

Moore-Jacobsen will pair each student to a horse and oversee the progress.

“I try to pair the temperament of the colt with the ability of the student trainer coming in,” Moore-Jacobsen says. “If we have someone who is a little bit shy, we do not give them the Hancock bred. I do get on them. Once they’ve been started a few rides, I usually get on to see where they are at and to make sure they are matched well with their riders. Then, I can guide them on which direction to go.”

The students will ride each other’s horses throughout the semester or can work with more than one for a deeper understanding of working with various horses to assist in real-life applications.

“Learning a lot about multiple kinds of horses has come in handy, especially in my own personal life, because I ride my own horses,” Toy says. “I get to use techniques I learned in the program and apply it to my own horses.”

Students are training horses for the Cal Poly Performance Horse Sale, one of the most successful collegiate horse sales in the country.
Photo by Molly Virginia Morris Photography

She had the opportunity to work with three horses for the sale last year. She blocked out her morning to have enough time for all of them. Toy plans to have a future in the horse industry.

“If all goes perfectly, I would love to be an assistant trainer for a cow horse or reining trainer,” Toy says.

The Sale

Photo by Molly Virginia Morris Photography

The sale is put on solely by the students and only overseen by Moore-Jacobsen. Students are responsible for finding the sponsors, creating the catalog and organizing the sale.

Jonath Robles, the 2022 Road to the Horse Wild Card Champion, was a clinician for the Quarter Horse Enterprise. He enjoyed the fact that the training and sale were tied together.

“It was unique to me seeing them get horses ready for sale and having to market them, then showing them off to potential buyers. That puts somebody in the position of, ‘We aren’t just training or riding horses. There’s an end goal to it,’” Robles says.

Students must learn how to market and sell these horses. Knoch had the highest-selling horse in last year’s sale.

“As the price kept rising, I kept thinking, ‘What can I do to make this horse sell for more?’” Knoch says. “When the price got to $20,000, I stood on him. When the price got to $30,000, I took the saddle off and hopped on bareback.”

When asked about bringing buyers in, Moore-Jacobsen says, “A lot of the draw is how much exposure our horses get and the hands-on they get from the students. There is so much going on campus that the colts are pretty darn gentle.”

Case in point, for one student’s birthday, they filled the tack room with balloons. It was not long before the bright balloons were being rubbed on the colts and thrown around for desensitization.

The versatility of the horses is another selling point. Georgia Jellen, a Cal Poly student, worked with CP Good Lil Oakie in the last sale.

“She’s talented enough to go to the futurities and sweet enough to go get loved on and do trail,” Jellen says about the filly she trained. The horses can go in any direction the buyer wants.

Cal Poly horses are competing currently. CP Metallic Dual was the NRCHA Stallion Stakes Intermediate Non Pro Derby Champion with lifetime earnings of $16,000. CP Hot Lil Pepto was a 2021 NCHA Futurity Amateur Finalist with lifetime earnings of over $22,500.

Students are training horses for the Cal Poly Performance Horse Sale, one of the most successful collegiate horse sales in the country.
Photo by Molly Virginia Morris Photography

Riding for the Bar P

Ken Wold, an NRCHA Million Dollar Rider and owner of Brother Jackson, is a Cal Poly alum and recent clinician for Quarter Horse Enterprise. He attributes his success to his education at the California Polytechnic State University and its equine program. Wold did not know he wanted to become a horse trainer until Harry Rose, a member of the NRCHA Hall of Fame, did a clinic during Wold’s time in the colt starting program.

“It opened my eyes on how horses should be trained effectively and that it takes more than throwing a saddle on a colt and riding it,” Wold says. “An equine professional must know the physiological aspects of the horse to maintain soundness throughout training, including the structure of a horse and [its] nutrition. All these things are crucial in being a successful horse trainer or any profession associated with horses.”

There are students following in his footsteps now. Chance Leatherman, a student at Cal Poly, plans to be a horse trainer. His involvement with the equine program is helping him reach his goal.

“You never finish learning,” Leatherman says. “There’s always something to learn from riding more horses. I figure the more I can work on them, the better I can be later.”

When Robles put on a clinic, he brought his assistant Sydney Immel. She was in the Cal Poly equine program and began working with Robles after she graduated.

Students are training horses for the Cal Poly Performance Horse Sale, one of the most successful collegiate horse sales in the country.
Photo by Molly Virginia Morris Photography

“I consider Sydney a great horsewoman,” Robles says. “If that’s an indication to me of the students coming out of the program, then it’s a positive to me.”

Cal Poly’s program is more than training horses, it provides students with the skills needed to create the next generation of those in the horse industry. The “learn by doing” mentality of the school stays with the students for the rest of their lives.

Wold still remembers his start.

“The colt starting program gave me the interest in how to train a horse — and that has stayed with me,” Wold says. “Fifty-five years later, I have won over $1 million and have been inducted into the NRCHA Hall Of Fame. It all started in that round pen at Cal Poly.”

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