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The Dispatch, Aaron Facemire) QUAD CITY TIMES OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, DEC. 18 AND THEREAFTER - In this photo taken Dec. 7, 2011, Renee Blacker rides a horse on a course during an equestrian science class at Black Hawk College East in Kewanee, Ill. The college offers both horse and equestrian science majors to students.

KEWANEE, Ill. — Many freshmen at Black Hawk College's East Campus here bring more than their laptops and backpacks to school — they bring their horses as well.

Perched four-and-a-half feet off the ground filming her students for an end-of-semester performance exam, Donna Irvin, an equestrian science professor who coaches the school's awarding-winning show team, listed some of the students' accomplishments.

The horse show team had five national champions this year and was the only two-year college to qualify a team for nationals, where it finished third. More than 300 colleges and universities compete annually in intercollegiate horse show association events.

For four out of the last six years, Black Hawk students were at the absolute top in horse judging. Its showing program is ranked nationally. The last group of sophomores was undefeated at congress and world shows, and as a team, won first through third places at each contest.

All eight team members placed in the top 15 at the world competition.

Black Hawk was also 2011 Semi Finals Team Champions and has won the regional championship for the last five years. This year the team is winning the region by 42 points. It has qualified a team for nationals five times.

The program is bursting out of its stalls, literally. With 69 stalls at its on-campus horse barn, and an equal number of students, it attracts people from all around the country.

Instructor Aaron Callahan said Black Hawk is the place to be for students who are serious about horses. The program is not just about winning shows, he said, it's more about learning the horse business.

Associate degrees in horse husbandry, equine science and management prepare students to overesee the selection, breeding, care and maintenance of work, athletic and show horses; and to manage horse farms, stables, tracks and related equipment and operations.

Students completing the horse science technology program work in occupations relating to the raising, breeding and management of horses. Specific jobs include stable manager, groomer, salesperson in tack store and public relations specialist.

"I think the majority of the kids will stay at least involved in the industry and at least have a passion for horses. Judging gives us another means of income, like a sideline," said Mr. Callahan. "Most shows are on the weekends. It's an extra income."

On a recent day, a recruiter from West Texas A & M University was at the college looking at student talent. John Pipkin said he visits Black Hawk once per year because its students are recognized in many areas as the best in both showing and judging. "Their students either go into the industry or into four-year programs all over the country and have done very well," he said.

Students range from life-long horse lovers to novices.

Chelsea Neirynck, of Rock Island, said she did not come from the horse world at all. "It's all new to me. Anything I know right now is all from here."

Katie Grimm, of Bettendorf, is double majoring in horse and equestrian science.

"I love it here," she said. "I've gotten to do horse production labs that I never thought, first semester, I'd be learning." The work includes cooling and shipping semen, processing cattle and barrel racing."

She's excited about the chance to break in a filly next semester.

"I was just almost, like, unreal that it was happening. You learn in lecture, then perform what you learn," she said.

Former student Melissa Bates, of Galva, participated on Black Hawk's horse judging teams while a student there, but got her degree in animal science and transferred to Iowa State University.

She said she knew horses weren't necessarily going to become her livelihood, but they always will be part of her life. She may still get a judge's card, allowing her to work at regional horse shows for different breeds or other types of shows.

A 2004 grad, Nikki Klein of Manito, bought her father's tack business and just opened Sandburr Tack and Western Wear on Illinois 78 S., about five miles from the college.

James Schultz, of Viola, said he plans to become a stock contractor for rodeo and work for himself eventually.

"I'm more interested in bucking horses than anything," he said. "I'm just going to try to be one of the best in the world. I just have a passion for it."

Mr. Schultz, who won two first places in a recent meet to qualify for the regional championships to be held at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo, this spring, said he went trail riding growing up, and caught a few cattle before coming to Black Hawk and deciding to take it seriously.

"I just love the environment here, the people, they're professionals. They help you out any way they can. I got hooked up with one of the best stock contractors. The money I spent, I think it's one of the best decisions I ever made to come here."

Ms. Irvin stressed that equine students "learn a good worth ethic and three times a month come in at 6 a.m. to feed all the horses, are often at the arena riding by 7:30 a.m. and there until 10 p.m. "so it's the real deal and then we host events. We burn the candle at both ends, but we're gritty and tough," she said.

She said for a recent scholarship fund-raiser, all students were on hand to set up a stage and they were all there at midnight to take it down. The event raised $54,000 and so was well worth the trouble, she said.

"We take pride in what we do and it shows," said Ms. Irvin. "Attention to detail is what separates champions from other people."

Information from: The Rock Island Argus, http://www.qconline.com/index.shtml