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March 18, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Inside an unheated stable at Stephens College, the air is a crisp 18 degrees, too cold for most of us but perfect conditions for the horses.
“The cold weather makes horses feel more spirited,” Kristin Panos explains as she tends to her equine, Penny.
In the Equestrian Studies Program, recreation goes hand in hand with responsibility, and daily exercise helps the students and the horses combat cabin fever together.
Because it’s almost too cold to ride — 18 degrees is the limit — Panos is suiting Penny up for a drive. While Panos outfits her with protective gear, Penny puts her ears back, jerks her head and chews the chain connected to her harness. Penny occasionally swings her head to bang the chain against the iron bars of her stall, as if emphasizing a point.
Panos wears a serious expression and has a dry sense of humor; she calmly wonders aloud if Penny might be going into heat. Panos’ friend Hannah Sette, a rosy cheeked freshman, helps prepare Penny for some light exercise.
The horses’ stalls border an arena that was once used for shows. Today, the large space is quiet. The students speak to one another only loudly enough to be heard, the fans in the rafters are still, and the only constant sound is the hum of the fluorescent light fixtures. Students wearing Stephens College sweat shirts trudge through the dark brown sand of the stable with a sense of purpose.
Driving — the exercise planned for Penny and a few other horses today — looks like an activity from a Victorian postcard. Students hook the horses up to delicate, two-wheeled carriages called jog carts, which seat two. The horses hold their heads regally high while they pull the young women in circles around the arena.
Panos pulls Penny’s jog cart into the arena as if she’s a horse herself, taking hold of the cart’s two shafts and walking between them. She looks like a girl playing make-believe, dwarfed by the carriage meant for a bigger creature. Other students are riding cautiously, careful not to over-exert the horses.
Later, while Panos supervises Penny’s cool-down process, a few visitors come through to see the horses. A boy lifts his younger brother up to reach over a short fence to pet Blondie, the shaggy white miniature horse that some call the program’s mascot.
While some horses cool down, others get ready to go. The visitors leave, but the students keep working, happy to be there, no matter the conditions.