UH-Hilo equine class pairs students with lava-displaced animals

  • STEPHANIE SALMONS / Hawaii Tribune-Herald
    Cyra Macanas, a livestock technician and recent University of Hawaii at Hilo graduate, works with Milton the horse Friday at UH-Hilo Agricultural Farm Laboratory in Panaewa.
  • STEPHANIE SALMONS / Hawaii Tribune-Herald
    Sara Tokura-Ellsworth pets Pogo on Friday at the University of Hawaii at Hilo Agricultural Farm Laboratory in Panaewa. Pogo was one horse displaced by eruption activity in lower Puna that found refuge at the university farm.

It was warm, breezy and busy last week at the University of Hawaii at Hilo Agricultural Farm Laboratory in Panaewa. At the end of the lane that makes its way across the property, students — and animals — bustled around the horse barn.

The students are part of the first horse production class offered by the university’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management in many years. They worked diligently Friday to brush, groom, walk and feed a number of the large animals.

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Some students in the class, however, began working with the animals in the summer, as the farm also became a refuge for horses displaced because of eruption activity that began May 3 in lower Puna.

Although there were a total of 23 horses relocated to the farm in recent months, just eight of those displaced horses still remain.

Four were brought by livestock technician Sara Tokura-Ellsworth — two of her own and two from the Kapoho property where she had boarded her horses for the past 16 years.

One horse was donated to the university, another was purchased, and two are still at the farm while their owners look for a permanent solution, farm manager Britton Cole said.

When the eruption began, instructor Lissa Tsutsumi said, “We knew we had some facilities available and talked to our administration” about whether people looking for places to put their horses could bring them to the farm temporarily.

Cole said it started with Tokura-Ellsworth “just asking a friend,” but word spread they were taking animals.

“It wasn’t like we were openly advertising taking horses, because that can open a floodgate,” Tsutsumi said. “It was literally by word of mouth.”

Tokura-Ellsworth stood next to Pogo, one of the relocated horses, on Friday and stroked the one-eyed gray horse’s dappled coat.

The day before the eruption began, Tokura-Ellsworth said it was “just constant earthquakes down there (in Kapoho) the whole day,” so she texted Tsutsumi.

“And I was like, ‘In the event something weird happens, do you guys have a place we could bring the horses temporarily if we ever needed to do that?’” she said.

“I think I actually told (Tsutsumi), ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen, but just in case, it would be good to have a backup plan.’ The day after that, I was like, ‘I’m coming right now with all the horses.’”

Tokura-Ellsworth considers herself “very fortunate” that she was able to bring the horses to the farm.

Many people took their horses to other areas, like the Hamakua Coast or Ka‘u, she said, which would be difficult trips for her to make daily.

“I knew that bringing them here, I could come see them every day,” Tokura-Ellsworth said. “I knew that they were taken care of, and also the opportunity in the long run for them to be used for a program, too, and help in some way, that has been really great.”

UH-Hilo has offered equine-related classes sporadically in the past, but “just this semester was the first semester we re-offered the horse class,” Tsutsumi said.

According to the university, a horse production class was taught every one or two years through the 1980s and 1990s, and an equitation, or horsemanship, class was taught twice.

A summer equestrian course was taught through the university’s College of Continuing Education and Community Service in 2007, and in 2014, a horse and cattle handling course was offered using loaned horses.

Cole said there was interest from the faculty, administration and students in getting an equine program started again.

“Most of the production classes, the max is 16 (students) and there’s normally like 10 kids in the class,” he said. “There’s 18 in this class. There (are) more people than are supposed to be in it, because everybody wanted to take it as soon as it was offered.”

Because many of the students are taking pre-veterinary courses, Tsutsumi said the class emphasizes animal handling.

“So if they do get into vet school, we try to give them the most hands-on experience, where they can say I’ve dealt with horses before, or I dealt with swine before, so that way they’re not afraid of them going in,” Tsutsumi said.

Equine classes also are befitting of the university’s location on the Big Island.

“There’s so much heritage and history here in cattle and horses and stuff like that, so it’s nice to be able to actually bring that back (and) perpetuate it,” Cole said.

Second year pre-vet student Tipparat Tiensuwan, 20, volunteered during the summer and is also taking the production class.

She said she started out with “zero horse experience,” but working this summer was an easy introduction to the class, “because now that I have class, I know a little bit about how to approach a horse.”

The class is a great program to gain more hands-on experience, “especially for kids who never have experience with large animals,” Tiensuwan said.

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Anyone interested in donating to help support the care of the displaced horses can do so online at uhfoundation.org/uhhequineprogram.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.