Quiet paddocks overlook the outstretching fields of the Southern Utah University Valley Farm.
A faint breeze breaks through the crisp air, stirring the soft tendrils of grass hay as a seemingly unremarkable grey horse enjoys his morning feast.
The sway of his back and matting of his once sleek fur give evidence to his age. A lifetime of scars earned from both work and play leave a smattering of deep lines like a memory across his coat.
Despite the wear on his body and the lax way in which he holds his head, the grey gelding still possesses a certain warmth that assures he is as gentle and willing as ever.
The SUU Valley Farm has been the horse’s home for the better part of his 26 years. In that time he has not only had a front row seat but played an integral role in the growth of SUU’s equine program.
Lee Wood, equine professor and agriculture and nutrition science department chair, purchased the gelding, known as Smokey, just before he began working for the university.
At four years old, the animal had an enlarged hock from a past injury and was freshly broke with a mere 30 days of riding on him. However; a friend of Wood’s insisted that the animal was something he would be interested in.
This recommendation was all it took for Wood to make the trip to see the young horse and load it into the back of his trailer.
He brought the animal home to Cedar City where he was working on Cedar Mountain helping with a Utah State University grazing study. Wood spent everyday on horseback, riding fence lines, checking animals and living a life he had always dreamed about.
For almost a year, Wood rode Smokey while working on the mountain. Immediately, he was impressed by the grey horse’s athleticism and abilities with cattle. The animal quickly became one of his favorites.
Though Wood was fond of his work on Cedar Mountain, soon after obtaining Smokey a new opportunity arose that called him to the valley below. He was hired by SUU to teach agriculture classes and was given the charge of enhancing the equine program.
“We had an equine program, but not like it is today,” Wood said. When he began his career at SUU in August of 1999, the university didn’t own any horses, equipment or even have anyone hired to teach the equine courses.
At the time only six riding courses were being taught with four sections of beginning horsemanship and two sections of intermediate horsemanship offered through adjunct teachers.
Horses, tack and other equipment were all borrowed and riding space was limited. Yet, according to Wood, horsemanship was “one of the most in demand classes on campus” as waiting lists always filled up in the first few days of registration.
The need for change and expansion within the program was apparent. In August of 1999, Wood’s first year with the university, he set to work by purchasing the first saddles, saddle pads, bridles and halters for the program as well as a small tack shed.
For almost four years Wood noted the difficulty of squeezing 15 saddles, students, bridles and halters into that initial tack shed.
Still, he showed up to the farm everyday, and with his eager students and Smokey by his side, his ambitions for the program’s growth continued to drive his efforts.
Over the next several years Wood began building up a herd of animals for the horsemanship classes by picking up horses from sale barns and ranches after the animals had been retired from long-day riding.
Wood also commissioned the SUU construction management program to build two larger tack sheds for storing the school’s riding equipment that are still in use today.
“It was like moving into the Taj Mahal,” Wood said of the new buildings. The improved sheds were just the beginning of many upgrades coming to the equine program, including notable updates to the boarding and especially riding facilities.
In the earliest years of Wood’s SUU career, he and his grey horse would utilize the farm’s original riding areas to oversee the horsemanship courses. These areas consisted of just one small riding arena and a log-pole round pen that still stands today.
While the areas were adequate initially, expansion of the program would require riding facilities that were much larger and more suitable for the Cedar City winters during which courses were being taught.
To meet this need, a larger outdoor arena and round pen were constructed closer to the boarding pens in the northeast corner of the farm. In 2010, plans to bring an indoor arena to the program were underway.
By 2015, those plans became a reality as the school’s Kenneth L. Cannon Equestrian Center was officially in use for horsemanship classes and individuals who board their own horses at the farm.
The upgraded facilities represented the turning of a new page for the program and stand as an impressive physical representation of its growth. Into this new chapter Smokey willingly trudged, making him one of the few remaining horses to know both the old and the new facilities.
While these upgrades were all vital to facilitate the program’s expansion, Wood’s primary focus centered on the needs of the students as he worked toward offering an official equine degree.
Prior to his involvement, there was no certificate or degree specifically for equine majors. By 2008, he had obtained approval of an Associate of Applied Science in Equine Studies degree to be offered through the Department of Agriculture and Nutrition Science.
“We have a two year associate degree,” Wood said. “It’s actually the only approved dedicated degree in the state. A lot of people don’t know that.”
USU in Logan, Utah is the only other university in the state with an equine program to rival that of SUU, but according to Wood they do not actually offer an equine degree that stands on its own, just an equine emphasis within their animal science major.
Throughout this unprecedented period of growth, Wood relied upon his own horses. His focus on expansion not only applied to the equine program’s facilities and academic opportunities, but also to the horsemanship courses offered to all SUU students.
Wood became the sole instructor of the beginner and intermediate horsemanship courses soon after his arrival at SUU. As such, he was tasked with teaching principles of horse care and riding techniques to students.
As the only instructor, Wood needed to ensure he had animals that he could trust. With a growing school herd and a number of borrowed horses still being used, Wood came to realize the important role horses like Smokey would play during his time with the university.
“He was my main horse,” Wood said. Wood liked that he was gentle, willing and smart enough to adapt to any number of situations presented during the various courses.
With a wide range of riding abilities and comfort levels among the class, Wood sometimes was faced with students whose abilities did not match those of the available school animals. So, it was not uncommon for him to trust these students to his own mount.
Smokey acted as an instructional horse for many years as the program grew to offer more horsemanship courses. Additional personnel were brought on to help teach as courses rose to as many as 18 sections offered in one year.
“I’ve been excited about what we’ve done here and the growth of the program,” Wood said.
Moving forward, he hopes to see the program continue to grow in opportunities for students. He expressed his desire to one day offer courses in equine therapy as this is an area he feels would benefit students with future job opportunities.
Despite an increasing demand for beginner and intermediate horsemanship classes, Wood doesn’t necessarily wish to over extend this segment of the program.
“I don’t want to grow too much,” he said. “Classes are relatively small and I like the personal part of it and also just for safety.”
Wood hopes that through the equine program and riding classes students can learn good horsemanship and riding principles that can be applied to any discipline, and that students “come away with an increased appreciation for interaction with others,” he said.
“I try and teach all the time: if you’re good with horses you’ll be good with people,” he said.
In his almost 22 years at SUU, Wood has seen his efforts with the equine program translate to an entire herd of university-owned horses, the only dedicated equine degree in the state and impressive year-round riding facilities
Through it all, his grey horse, Smokey, has steadily walked, trotted and loped right along with the incoming changes.
Now Smokey will live out the remainder of his days as a sort of mascot for the humble beginnings of the equine program.
Though he is easily overlooked beside the sleek and youthful horses that surround him, beneath the shag of his winter coat and the muted slowness of his walk Smokey is the same horse that aided in laying the groundwork for the countless opportunities made available to students to come.
Story By: Mikyla Bagley
Photos by: Lee Wood and Mikyla Bagley