It all started with an artificial vagina.
The newborn foals in the campus Horse Barn are a charming vision of life in the quaint Davis flatlands. They tenderly nuzzle their mothers and wave their bristled tails in the winter breeze. Every January, these tiny foals appear in the barn. And every January, the students of the Stud Manager Internship help to create them.
The birds and the bees
Joel Viloria, the barn manager and instructor of the internship, is wearing thick leather boots, Wrangler jeans and a plaid shirt. He calmly hands one of his students the artificial vagina (AV), a long leather device used to collect sperm from stallions, and makes his way to a small corral. Today, his interns will be learning how to artificially inseminate a horse, the means by which all horses in the barn are created.
“Don’t grab the stallion,” he tells his interns, without a hint of sarcasm or laughter. “Just grab his penis and massage him. And remember that aggression is not allowed.“
With that, an intern leads a large, brown stallion into the corral, where a “tease mare” is waiting behind a barricade. The stallion takes one look at her and he’s ready.
The intern holding the AV is Jessica Bednar, a senior animal science major. As the 900 pound stallion mounts an artificial horse, she gathers the sperm via the AV. By the end of the collection, her hands are shaking. The entire session only lasts about two minutes, but with a horse that size and with that much testosterone, Bednar had to be careful.
The stallion, on the other hand, looks peaceful. He remains collapsed on the artificial horse, a contented look on his face. The students pat him on the back – a job well done, as they’ll soon find out.
“If he wants a cig, he can go ahead and light up,” Viloria jokes. “He did some good work there.“
But the process must move along. If this collection weren’t a learning experience, the sperm would have to be collected and planted in the mare in about 30 minutes, in order to sustain the short life of the sperm.
“Let’s go, let’s go! Sperm are dying,” Viloria tells the six interns who all seem rather shaken up from the recent experience. “Every little guy you lose could be the next champion!”
He leads them into a small lab, where Bednar removes a container with about 35 milliliters of sperm from the AV and places it on the sterile counter. The interns do a series of tests and equations to determine whether or not the sperm is healthy, how much they attained and what the success rate of those sperm will probably be – this collection yielded well, Viloria tells his students; the conception rate is about 80 percent.
By this point, the Bednar’s hands have stopped shaking, and she and the other interns are memorizing the equations on the white board in front of them.
They find that their collection can be used to inseminate about six female horses, or mares. A few of those mares will spend their 11 month gestation period at the Davis Horse Barn, but some of the sperm collected will be sent across the country to various equine enthusiasts, eager to breed and raise the “next champion.“
Getting down to business
Just one dosage of sperm can cost up to $900, depending on the pedigree of horse. Funds like these keep these internships going. The program is completely self-sustaining, deriving money from the sale of sperm and colts.
In addition to selling and mailing sperm, the interns at the horse barn raise and train those foals that were inseminated at the barn. After a year of training, the yearlings are auctioned off, sometimes for up to $20,000. This money also goes toward the equipment and training the program involves.
And although the equine business has suffered marginally from the economic downturn, people are still willing to spend money on the hobby. The success of the industry is one reason why the interns are gravitating toward a career in animal production.
Another reason many of the interns hope to become professional equine specialists is because it’s an alternative to veterinary school and they’ll be able to get jobs just after graduation.
“I couldn’t handle the blood and guts of vet school,” said Tiffany Dube, a sophomore animal science major and intern. “I think this is a better way for me to help animals.“
After the internship, students like Dube and Bednar will be fully equipped for a job in animal production. Viloria trains them to think on their feet, and tells them stories from when he was a student.
“My first collection was from a million dollar stallion,” he says while one of the interns places the graduated cylinder filled with sperm on the counter. “I knocked it right off the table within five minutes of collecting it. Come your first collection, you’re going to be scared to death.“
Viloria is constantly teaching the interns. When they practice packaging the specimens, Viloria keeps a close eye on them, telling them what they did right and asking them what they did wrong when they finish. They offer a variety of possibilities-sure signs that they’ve been quizzed on the subject before.
“He’s like big brother,” said student barn manager Cassie Oslund jokingly. “He’s always watching.“
To most of them, the internship is already like a full-time job, but the interns still go to class five days a week. Their free time is spent at the barn, with 20 hours a week spent on the internship itself. Dube even lives in a small apartment on the barn.
“You get into it, and it becomes your life,” Dube said.
The circle of life
Walking into the horse barn on campus, two foals are laying by their mothers‘ sides. A year ago about this time, Oslund and her fellow interns were inseminating those very mares in a method almost identical to the one the interns just experienced.
“I was like a proud mother when they were born,” said Oslund, a senior animal science major. “I saw [the horse fetus] on the ultra sound when it was [conceived] and it looked just like a baby in a human stomach.“
After the mares are inseminated, the students can see the fetus from the ultrasound at 14 days. At 25 days, they can feel a heartbeat. Ten months later, the mares give birth.
Currently, two foals have been born, and the staff is expecting 14 more within the month.
Those on “foal watch” must be attentive 24 hours a day-sleeping on a hard couch in the barn at night, and staying close-by in the day, training and taking care of horses. The students can watch the mares on a webcam, and if any of their waters break, an alarm stitched to the mares‘ vulvas will sound.
“You can usually tell when a mare is in labor just by looking at her,” said Gwen Anthony, a fifth-year senior animal science major. “Her mammary glands swell up and her belly protrudes toward her rear.“
When the time comes for the mare to give birth, the students and staff usually do not assist, unless there are complications. The procedure should be fast, he said, there are probably other horses that will be giving birth soon.
One hour after birth, the foal will stand. At two hours, it will start to nurse. The staff hopes that after three hours, the mare will pass the placenta-they can interpret the health of both mother and foal by studying this.
For the year or more after, the foal may continue to be in constant care of the facility staff. They experience the horses‘ lives before the horses are even alive.
“A lot of people don’t get to see it like we do,” Viloria said. “It’s a pretty interesting side of life.“
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.