The early afternoon sun gently pours through the barn door, its white paint chipping and peeling with wear. The air is filled with the sweet smell of hay from the lofts above the stalls, mixed with the pungent earthiness of the horses.
Conversation, punctuated by the occasional whinny or nicker from the stalls, comes from the small congregation of people gathered in the barn, laughing and talking about the newest horse, Hubert, who had just arrived that morning.
It is feeding time, and the horses know it; their excited Pavlovian neighs reach a fever pitch as the feed bucket makes its way around the barn.
A solitary orange barn cat patrols for uninvited rodent guests and generally looks disdained at the commotion.
It is an idyllic scene that one might expect to see at a Kentucky horse farm. But the barn is also a classroom, and the equestrian individuals are students at the North American Riding Academy — the only racehorse-riding certification program offered through a community college in the United States.
The academy, known as NARA, is located at the Thoroughbred Training Center, approximately 20 minutes from downtown Lexington, Kentucky. Founded in 2006 by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, NARA recently rebranded and is now under the ownership of Bluegrass Community and Technical College's equine program.
Dixie Kendall is the program director for BCTC Equine, where she has worked for over 11 years. She said the rebranding was intended to better market the variety of opportunities and pathways students can pursue through the academy. Although NARA was originally founded as a jockey school, it now includes a number of other focuses.
"The program offers a lot more than just our racehorse-riding program," she said. "Whether it's racing, breeding industry, sport horse, we have a full plethora of equine classes that we have as part of our program."
With those myriad classes come myriad career paths.
NARA offers a two-year associate's degree, but Kendall said it gives students a low-cost option to get a head start in the industry, opening doors to internships and job opportunities, and the courses easily transfer to four-year institutions should students decide to continue pursuing their degree.
Although many NARA students have backgrounds in the equine world, Kendall said that a surprising number have come through the program with little to no prior horse experience.
One such student, Derek Manns, left his background in managing restaurants to hopefully start a new career managing barns. Manns said he has been riding horses since he was five years old, and now, in his 30s, he is finally doing what he loves.
"When COVID started, I was like, 'It's time to follow your dream,' so that's where I'm at," he said. "I just like to be around [horses] every day, taking care of them."
Eric Resendiz, a second-semester equine student, wants to go into horse training after graduation. He said his passion for horses began at an early age, when he would go to the racetrack where his father worked.
"I moved here from Arkansas a few years ago, that's kind of where it all started," he said. "I went to the racetrack — that's kind of the only thing to do, so I went all the time."
Although he originally wanted to go to the University of Louisville for his degree, Resendiz said he is glad he chose to attend NARA.
"I think the hands-on experience is really fun," he said. "And there's great people, good teachers. It's really fun."
Kendall said NARA focuses on the thoroughbred racing industry, preparing students to enter careers as jockeys or exercise rides — both of which are highly physical lines of work.
"It's definitely a different aspect, riding a racehorse, than it is in any other discipline," she said. "Galloping racehorses is a very, very physical endeavor."
Because both careers entail galloping horses at high speeds for extended periods of time, students pursuing their jockey license or wanting to become exercise riders have to "make weight," meeting certain weight requirements, and undergo tryouts that test their physical abilities.
Ohio native Genny Cavalier is one such student hoping to pass the physical tryout, which she will complete this spring. At 28, she is in her second semester at NARA and is on track to become an exercise rider after graduation, eventually hoping to work as a jockey.
One of 15 students training for the tryouts, Cavalier said the competition she will face is "stiff" this year.
The tests are done on an Equicizer — a mechanical horse that stimulates the experience of riding a real one. They examine students' abilities to complete a two-point hold, a position on the horse where rides lift themselves completely off the saddle and maintain contact with the horse with their knees and reins.
Cavalier also said students have to complete 50 situps in two minutes and run a mile in under nine minutes.
"And that's just starting out," she said, laughing.
As one might guess from the rigor and physicality of the tryouts, the life of an equestrian student is filled with hard work — and early mornings.
The handful of students in the barn that afternoon had just finished their Equine Care Lab class, learning how to care for horses' daily needs like first aid, grooming and bandaging. Their day began promptly at 7 a.m., when they arrived at the school.
Each week, students are assigned one horse that they will take care of every day. When they get to the school each Monday through Thursday, they have until 8 a.m. to groom, feed and care for their horse, given just 20 minutes to clean out their horse's stall.
Resendiz said that the morning class is "kind of chaotic," but it is still his favorite class so far.
"I've learned a lot; I've learned how to be quicker in certain areas," he said. "It teaches you to be a little bit more detailed, and it's pretty fun."
Resendiz joked that being up so early on a regular basis has helped him get used to the bitter Kentucky winters. Getting an early start to the day four mornings per week suddenly makes some chilly weather seem not so bad.
After that morning class, students jump into the rest of their course load, taking classes like Introduction to the Racing Industry and Training Principles and Practices.
One of Kentucky native Taylor Martin's favorite classes is Introduction to Racing, which teaches students about the different areas of a racetrack. NARA is able to use the track owned by the Thoroughbred Training Center for its classes.
Martin, 22, is wanting to use the skills she is learning in her future career as an exercise rider.
"I love going fast on horses. I want to work with them every day," she said.
And the horses certainly go fast. Martin said that a horse can usually gallop in excess of 40 miles per hour, although it depends on the horse.
Another of Martin's favorite classes thus far dealt with bloodstock, the industry of purchasing horses for breeding. The class took a trip to Keeneland for the yearling and broodmare sales, and she said that the opportunity was invaluable.
"You have to go and really talk to the people that are in the industry already," Martin said. "It really got me out of my comfort zone."
Amy Heitzman, an instructor at the school, teaches a number of the lab-based courses offered, including Equine Care. She said one of her favorite things about NARA is the small class sizes, which are typically capped at around 15 students. The racehorse-riding classes only accept six students, who are selected based on their performance during tryouts.
Heitzman said the small classes create a more personalized experience for her and her students.
"I like how they [have] very one-on-one interactions, and I get to know the students personally," Heitzman said.
Martin echoed this, saying that the school's small size fosters a tight-knit community of students.
"We all get along really well," she said. "We all have the same end goal: to be successful in the horse industry."
A career in the equine world in any capacity means long hours and fast-paced, hard work, rain or shine. Despite this, Heitzman said that the work is incredibly rewarding, and while natural ability definitely plays a part, success in the industry is largely determined by one's level of dedication.
"I think a lot of it comes down to just having the guts to do it," she said. "Just that drive to want to do it."