Whitney McMillan was never sure whether her parents would approve of her pursuing her choice to attend “horsie school.”
But after earning her degree in baking and pastry from the Art Institute of Atlanta, the graduate learned later that her assumption about her parents’ dreams for her was mistaken.
With her previous diploma serving as a backup opportunity, the senior is now pursuing her original dream, studying in CSU’s equine science program, riding on the university’s polo team and working full time on a horse ranch north of Wellington.
Standing in a portable horse stable at the inaugural Fort Collins Irish Festival, next to one of five remaining gypsy wagons in the U.S.,
it is clear to McMillan’s co-workers that she is a “true horse woman,” which they say is one of most prestigious informal titles in horsemanship.
“There are some people that are just good with horses, but to be called a horse man or woman is a true compliment,” said Cindy Reich, part-time CSU Equine Reproductive Lab assistant and business advisor to Charlie Parnell, McMillan’s employer.
Running the farm
Charlie Parnell hired McMillan over a year ago to care for his horses.
Parnell is a Wellington resident who breeds Irish Cobs, which are small draft horses bred by Irish gypsies for hauling their unique carts that facilitate their nomadic lifestyle.
When a teammate who was working for Parnell mentioned that she needed a temporary intern to take her position for the summer, McMillan applied.
Later, she took up permanent employment, replacing a graduating student. And while McMillan’s interest is in post-operative rehabilitation for horses, the work she has completed on the Parnell’s farm has been what she calls a complete learning experience.
“[The Parnells] are the best people I’ve ever worked for,” said McMillan. “I feel like they’ve adopted me. It’s like working for my parents, but without all of the family drama.”
A lifelong horse lover, McMillan excelled in her position at the farm house. Her soft and quiet personality led her into a close relationship with the Parnell’s Irish Cobs, which are famous for being what Reich calls “family horses.” McMillan started renting the farmhouse this summer to care for the animals 24/7.
“I feel like I have a lot more responsibility with them now,” she said. “Every time I even hear them galloping at any hour, I’m outside checking on them.”
After she obtains her bachelor’s in equine science, McMillan plans to study as a graduate of the same program. Her first position within the field, prior to employment with the Parnells, allowed her to work with an aquatic treadmill for horses, which she said was the “thing that got [her] more into rehab.”
Parnell’s Irish Cobs
In 2005, Parnell’s daughter-in-law Jodi Callison studied equine science at CSU, and fell in love with Irish Cobs.
At the time, two mares were kept at CSU to give birth and were to be re-bred.
Parnell and his wife, Jan, went to see the horses and were hooked by their small, stocky builds, thick, beautiful manes and tails and docile demeanors.
“They are often referred to as easy keepers,” Parnell said. “They are such an accommodating animal and are so forgiving. [They are] so versatile and easy to care for.”
That year, the Parnells, who are retired pharmaceutical technicians, traveled to Dublin, Ireland to go “horse shopping,” and arrived back in the states with seven horses, five of which were pregnant, being flown in behind them.
Irish Cobs are rarely bred in this country, and the Parnells have found a thick market for them in Colorado, which boasts the highest number of horse owners per capita in the U.S. Parnell finds that northern Colorado’s proximity to CSU, which has one of most prestigious equine science programs in the U.S., is mutually beneficial in hiring CSU students.
Aside from Colorado’s drier climate, which can keep the horses more comfortable, the Parnells typically hire one to five students at a time to run the farm.
The experience, Parnell said, has given them “good, quality people who really understand horses.” Oftentimes, his employees enter the job pursuing degrees other than one in equine science, but leave “trying to figure out how to make a career out of caring for horses.”
McMillan, however, has always loved horses, and she hopes to work for the Parnells for “as long as I can,” she said.
“I learn so much just hanging around the farm,” she said. “It’s quieter out there. Hearing the horses outside chewing and knickering to each other soothes me.”
Assistant News Editor Elyse Jarvis can be reached at email@example.com.