CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., Nov. 9, 2015 – Beth Uelsmann Figueroa has been teaching equine science at Southeast Missouri State University for 18 years, and strives to make every class more than about the textbook.
“Hands-on is priceless to me,” said Figueroa, horse science instructor in Southeast’s Department of Agriculture. “We can talk about book stuff all day, but that gets boring. However, if students get hands on and they see and they feel it and they smell it, man they get it. It’s up in your face.”
Figueroa began teaching at Southeast in 1997 but horses have been a part of her entire life.
“I grew up around them,” she said. “I started riding when I was three, showing when I was seven and I won my first national championship when I was 10.”
Horses were always a family hobby. Her grandparents began specializing in the Paso Fino breed, a Spanish-gaited horse, in 1968. However, the family tradition for more than 100 years was banking.
“I was supposed to be one too, but my heart was somewhere else,” said Figueroa. “I rocked the boat.”
After graduating in 1992 from Murray State University with a degree in interior design, her heart brought her back to southeast Missouri. Dr. Bill Ellis, then a Southeast professor of agriculture and long-time family friend, encouraged Figueroa to pursue her passion for horses at Southeast.
“He always told me I went to the wrong school,” said Figueroa.
She graduated in 1997 with an agriculture business degree and in the fall began teaching equine science classes.
For 18 years, Figueroa has taught on her family’s 300-acre farm, El Tomaria Farm, Inc., in Benton, Missouri.
Figueroa’s knowledge and out-of-the-classroom experiences are the greatest invaluable assets she gives Southeast students, said Dr. Julie Weathers.
“Our students love her and love the hands-on experience they get in her classes,” said Weathers, Southeast assistant professor of agriculture. “She brings a ton of experience, and the students learn so much from her.”
Having plenty of things for her students to do is never an issue. With 80 horses, breeding and birthing schedules, training, lessons, and participating in the Paso Fino Grand National Championship Show and Expo and Team USA Kid’s Paso Fino Division, Figueroa always has something to teach her students.
“With this many horses, there’s always something going on,” she said. “Every class is different. I can spin my class around things that are going on here.”
Her two classes cover a lot of topics: horse anatomy, tackling, hoof care, breeds, basic riding, how to evaluate and buy a horse, breeding and farm management from an equine perspective.
She tries to match her class with every student’s individual experience levels.
“Sometimes you get a class where nobody has done this before or you’ll get a class with a lot of experienced students and sometimes it’s just a mixture.”
Spring is one of her favorite times with the students.
“We have the babies born here, so we can go over the foal imprinting and what to do to prepare for a baby,” she said.
No matter her students’ skill levels, she always emphasizes the importance of every horse’s health and care.
“There’s a lot to it. Some people think ‘oh feeding horses, you just throw some food at them and move on,’ but it’s not like that at all,” said Figueroa. “Just like people, they have specific health needs and what’s a good grain for this horse is not a good grain for the next horse.”
Figueroa tries to instill a sense of responsibility and professionalism in her students whether they want to simply own a horse, be a vet or run their own farm.
“It’s really critical — the position of a feeder — to know the horses and their diets,” she said. “No matter if the horse is inexpensive or very expensive, the cost to care for them is the same.”
For Elizabeth Stockton, a senior agribusiness major, Figueroa is an invaluable resource for her academic and career success.
“She’s been awesome,” said Stockton, of Orrick, Missouri. “She’s very helpful if you don’t know what you’re doing or have questions.”
Stockton wants to open a boarding house for horses after she graduates this December and says Figueroa has been a role model for her.
“I’ve learned from her life experiences — not just the classes and lessons,” said Stockton.
Figueroa strives to have her students learn as much as they can even outside the scheduled class time. She often invites her students when equine professionals visit her farm. She also takes students to competitions, shows and expos.
“It’s an awesome experience for them,” said Figueroa. “They get to meet all sorts of different people and make great connections.”
Figueroa’s experience offers so much more than just the typical class, said Weathers.
“She gives our students that real-world practical application because that’s what she does every day,” said Weathers. “That’s what we want for our students.”
No matter her student’s career goals, Figueroa says she hopes the class gives them a deeper appreciation for animals and farm management.
“As long as they leave my class as a more responsible human being, then I’ve accomplished something,” she said.