It often seems that equestrians and those interested in the equine industry are steered away from majoring or minoring in some kind of equine degree. It can often be seen as ‘limiting’ or ‘too narrow’ of a focus. Those not privy to the industry might think that the only thing to do with an equine degree is to become a barn owner or ride professionally.

otterbeinequinesignHowever, at Otterbein University (located in Westerville, Ohio), students are encouraged to pursue their equine-related dreams with several equine majors and minors, and a strong equestrian team. The Equine Department at Otterbein has graduated a multitude of students who have gone on to amazing and unique careers in the equine industry, proving the multifaceted nature of the industry, and how versatile an equine-related degree can be.

In this series, I will be catching up with a variety of Otterbein alumna and sharing the careers that they have found within the equine industry.

Featured image: Mombotombo, aka Henry, and Becca pose in front of a banner donated by California Retirement Management Account during a clinic with Christian Bachinger of the Spanish Riding School.

Rebecca “Becca” Knopf is 2015 graduate from Otterbein University, with a Major in Equine Business Management, and Minors in Journalism and Media Communications and Studio Art (with a concentration in Communication Design).

She is currently employed with the 501c3 Non-Profit organization, Square Peg Foundation, located in Half Moon Bay, California.

When I asked Knopf what her current job was, it was not easy for her to categorize what it is she does. “I am a staff member and soon to be Registered Behavior Technician at the Square Peg Foundation” she said, but “I could also be labeled as any of the following: riding instructor, job coach, stall cleaner, horse trainer, OTTB advocate, trick rider, professional hiker, therapist, pond kayaker, guppy catcher, bird watcher, story teller, monster, Jedi knight, giggle inducer, tutu-wearing riding buddy”.

So how did Knopf find such a multi-faceted job?

Originally from California, Knopf had a standing offer from her old riding program to return home and resume teaching lessons post-graduation, but she didn’t feel that it would challenge her or give her the ability to grow. “I had gone to Otterbein with the intention of learning equine business management skills so I could help run a therapeutic riding program” explained Knopf, who also believes that such programs often need more skilled people to help manage them.  She set out to search for therapeutic programs that would bring her back to the West Coast, her family and her horse (and better weather).

Knopf found several results, but one in particular caught her attention, so she “…sent off a straightforward email with the subject line of, ‘Soon-to-be-graduate seeking meaningful employment.'” Knopf joked that this was the best subject line she’s ever wrote, and it produced a string of emails and a phone interview with the founder of Square Peg Foundation, Joell Dunlap.  After graduation, Knopf returned to California and had a test-run day with Square Peg, and the rest is history.  Knopf has been with Square Peg for almost a year-and-a-half, and she is “…still loving and growing in (her) work”.

As Knopf explained more about what Square Peg does, I realized why she could not readily claim one job title.

“Square Peg Ranch is a multi dimensional program that serves ex-thoroughbred race horses and kids and adults who often have behavioral problems, developmental disorders, autism, ADD and other nuero-sensitivities” explained Knopf.

Square Peg is a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance accredited program, which means they re-train and re-home OTTB’s.  Knopf said that many of the horses find their new homes in west coast polo clubs, and the ones that stay at the Square Peg Ranch transition into lessons horses that they use in their program.

Currently, Square Peg has 14 OTTB’s (and a few other ex-show horses), and places between 6-10 horses each year.

“Most of our students wouldn’t fit into a regular or a therapeutic riding program model. Many of our students are neuro-sensitive and are diagnosed with autism, ADD, ADHD,  spectrum or have other, and others need the space to love and learn horses without the pressure to show” says Knopf.  “We call Square Peg an adaptive riding program, we create a space where, “everyone fits.” Part of what makes our program so successful is our physical environment; we are located in a little eucalyptus tree lined canyon less than 10 miles from the beautiful Pacific Ocean coastline. And here we have been able to create a safe, non-pressure environment for the kids, families and horses.”

I found it interesting that Square Peg combined OTTB’s into a therapeutic program, 2 things that intuitively seem like they wouldn’t go together. But Knopf believes that Thoroughbreds are ideal for their program.

“When you really think about it—thoroughbreds are the perfect therapy and lesson horse. They have been socialized to interact and expect humans to take care of them since day one. In return, they are more sensitive to our needs and feelings. Plus, they have been desensitized to more than most people expect. They are the perfect horse to use with kids who often can’t verbally express their thoughts and feelings. The ex-racehorses just want to be loved, made useful, hugged and fed lots of carrots. If the kid wants to trot, we make sure their horse is ready and trained for that. But if all they want is to lie on the horse in the middle of the arena and hug them because the presence of a 1200 pound animal of solid muscle and even relaxed breath is soothing—then we let them do that.”

With so many things going on, I asked Knopf what a typical day might look like for her.  She works with any number of horses–from riding, in-hand, lunging or ground work.  All the horses are trained using a classical dressage model.  Knopf teaches between 3 and 6 lessons, which might look very different than your ‘normal’ riding lesson. Some, “…are lunge lessons, some “playdates”—with a horse fulfilling the role of a knight’s steed, or monster, or race car—, some I will ride behind the child (“backriding”) so we can walk, trot and canter around feeling the awesomeness that exists in a horse’s thunderous gaits.”

Lesson attire is often a bit whimsical at Square Peg. (Left to right) barn manager Rachel Bisaillon on Seven Bridges aka “Ace,” along with Becca and student on OTTB lesson horse Colonel Clark, named “Owen” by her brother. Photo credits: Joell Dunlap

In addition, Knopf has a healthy list of barn chores, manages the Square Peg Foundation social media accounts and blog, and helps with fundraising projects.

She also mentioned that Square Peg teams up with local surf club during the summer and puts on a surf camp to include activities with other kids. (How cool does that sound?)

All of that being said, what did Knopf do during her time at Otterbein and during her undergraduate career that helped her land this amazing and meaningful career in the equine industry?

Knopf identified leadership roles helping her greatly. “I think those experiences really helped me lose any fear I may have had about taking on a more visible role in something” she said.  Since she moved such a long distance from home for college, she also had to learn to be self-sufficient; although she also said that Otterbein gave her “…the family (she) didn’t have close by”.

With regards to the equine program itself, Knopf said that it gave her “…a very well rounded view of the industry and where our industry needs growth.  While there are always vast amounts of knowledge to be gained and every facet of our complex industry, I learned how to ask the right questions and see the equine industry as the complex, diverse, bureaucratic and evolving industry that it is.”

Now in her current job, Knopf is able to apply these principles and concepts. “Working at Square Peg, I am acutely aware of issues and benefits in the thoroughbred racing business, as well as the unwanted horse problem and new challenges involved in educating the next generation of horsemen” said Knopf. “Otterbein taught me to to look at the horse industry without blinkers and grapple with the larger problems facing our traditionalist equine community. How do we serve the best interest of our horses and not go broke? How do we make use of horses who can no longer perform at their current job? How do you pass on the complex slowly learned intricacies of true horsemanship in our world of lavish consumerism and immediate need for laurels?”

Also while at Otterbein, Knopf served as the assistant editor-in-chief of the university’s print publication, the T&C magazine.  It taught her accountability, how to effectively manage other people, and continue to develop her own writing.

She also assisted in organizing and running the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) Nationals, which were held at Otterbein in the spring of 2015.  Knopf was an active competitor of all three of the university’s equestrian teams (Dressage, Hunt Seat and Eventing). “Not only was I able to practice and show in disciplines I have never experienced before like eventing, but I learned about sportsmanship and true team spirit” said Knopf.

So back to the original question…what is it, exactly, that Becca Knopf does?

“Otterbein ensured that I didn’t define myself in one way but that I was able to grow shine in as all the ways that I could. I think at Otterbein everyone falls into the category of being uncategorical. And thankfully I have found a job that is the same” explained Knopf. “I cannot put into a single word what my job title is or what Square Peg is. I am a riding instructor, editor, friend, therapist, social media manager and marketer, parent counselor, cheer leader, horse trainer, stall cleaner, teacher, groom, and superhero. Square Peg is a thoroughbred rescue, sanctuary, riding school, classroom, career training program, vacation spot, gym, and home. Square Peg is a place where everyone fits.”

Many thanks to Becca for sharing her spectacular story, photos and information!

If you would like to learn more about Square Peg Foundation, click here (and follow them on social media, Instagram: @squarepegfoundation #teamquirky)

If you would like to learn more about Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance programs, click here

If you would like to learn more about Otterbein University and their Equine Deparment, click here

If you would like to learn more about the research behind the work that Square Peg does, check out the links below!