Exercising Heart, Mind and Horses through an Equine Internship
For Asbury senior Libby Vandervennet, a summer internship with Taylor Made Farms in Nicholasville, Ky., was a window into the inner workings of the thoroughbred racing industry, an opportunity for cross-cultural learning and a wealth of practical work experience. Most of all, though, her internship was a way to challenge the values and expectations of the racing industry with her own values and commitments as a Christian. In other words, it was an exercise in being different.
An Equine and Business double major, Vandervennet became interested in Taylor Made through the recommendation of Harold Rainwater ’69, director of Asbury’s Equine Program. Though Taylor Made does not officially offer internships, Vandervennet was offered a position as a “seasonal worker” because of Rainwater’s influence.
“Harold actually got me the internship,” Vandervennet said. “He sent an e-mail to them and told them about me, that I was interested in doing an internship with them, and because they knew Harold, they offered me a position.”
Taylor Made Farms is one of the leading co-signers of thoroughbreds, according to Vandervennet, and has been the leading seller of horses at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., which hosts the world’s largest yearling sale. Buyers coming from “France, Ireland, Asia, Dubai, all over the place,” Vandervennet says, and Taylor Made regularly brings the largest group of horses (10 percent last year, with earnings of $33 million).
Vandervennet worked as a yearling groom, keeping the horses in top condition for sales both at Keeneland and at Saratoga in New York.
“We brought horses in, bathed them, put them in a hot walker — which is like a big merry-go-round that the horses go in — and that just builds muscle and makes them look filled out for the sales,” she said. “When people buy a horse, they want to get one that looks athletic. It’s all about making the horse look pretty. We also practiced teaching them how to walk with you and how they’re supposed to specifically stand at the sales so that prospective buyers can see them and look at the whole horse. It’s a difficult to teach a one-year-old horse that’s taller than you are.”
In addition to caring for multi-million dollar thoroughbreds, Vandervennet learned to overcome cultural and language barriers in interacting with her co-workers.
“I was in a barn with three other guys, Hispanics, who spoke no English, and I spoke very little Spanish, so it was like culture shock, all at the same time,” she said. “I kind of knew that going in, but it was still intimidating. I learned to be more open to very different cultures. I was terrified going in, but they turned out to be very friendly. Once they got past the fact that I was a girl, and they realized that I could actually handle a horse, they kind of welcomed me into the family.”
The internship provided Vandervennet with a clear picture of the thoroughbred industry, which turned out to be different than what she might have imagined without the internship. She said the experience was overwhelmingly positive, providing her opportunities to learn, to grow and to be a witness for Christ.
“My entire time at Asbury I’ve grown a lot, but this was the first time I’d ever been so outside my comfort zone,” she said. “I was still with horses...but this was in a predominantly male environment, and mostly non-English. It made me more confident that I could go outside of the ‘Asbury bubble’ into in entirely worldly environment. At Saratoga, as well, all my co-workers would go out at night and go to the bars, but I would just go back to my hotel. It made me more confident in who I am as a person, and in Christ, that I can go out into the world and still be able to stay who I am.”
Vandervennet’s willingness to be different in the high-stakes, high-dollar thoroughbred industry didn’t go unnoticed. Her manager, as well as one of the farm owners, asked her to return to work sales even after the semester had begun.
“There was one time, when I went to September sales, that I brought a friend from Asbury with me,” she said. “We both worked for two weeks with them. There was one weekend that they were short people, and just because of who we were as individuals, and the fact that we had a good work ethic, they came up to us and said, ‘Look, we’re short on people. Is there anyone else from Asbury who would come and work with us for a weekend?’ They just realized that there was something different about us. I know Taylor Made has been impressed by Asbury, and they said any recommendation Harold gives them they will take seriously.”
Vandervennet says she views her involvement with the thoroughbred industry not just as work experience, but as ministry. Her goal is “to be an example of what it means to be different.”
“The industry is full of people for whom it’s all about the money, and the drinking and the gambling,” she said. “What I wanted to do was put a value on those horses besides the money, because they’re God’s creatures. I just really wanted to live up to being a light for Christ, just by being a person. That made a difference at Taylor Made — I know it did. I think if you can live up to what you say you believe, the standards we have for ourselves, and if you can hold onto those even in situations that are tempting and worldly, then you can be an example for Christ.”
--by Joel Sams ‘15