Trio takes the reins at Morgan Horse Farm: Facility to focus on education, tourism

WEYBRIDGE — After losing its long-time director earlier this year, University of Vermont’s 139-year-old Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge is beginning a new chapter with a new management team, a revitalized educational mission and the prospect of some capital improvements on its 212-acre campus.
New leadership is beginning to change the identity of the horse farm from what has primarily been a training and breeding facility for Morgans, to more of an educational asset and tourist magnet.
Stephen Davis, who had presided over the Morgan Horse Farm for the past 32 years, has retired, UVM announced. He was succeeded this past summer by a triumvirate of Kimberly Demars, who serves as farm manager; Sarah Fauver, equine specialist; and Margot Smithson, operations coordinator.
Smithson gave high praise to Davis.
“Steve has had an incredible impact on the farm, on the Morgan community and he leaves big shoes to fill,” Smithson said.
Smithson first became associated with the Morgan Horse Farm while taking a “volunteering” class as a Middlebury Union High School student in 2000.
“I came here and did anything and everything,” said Smithson, a longtime fan of horses who took her first riding lesson at age 5.
Her volunteer efforts at the farm were noticed and appreciated, to the extent MHF officials offered her a part-time paid job, performing general maintenance and some horse handling assignments during school vacations and free time.
Smithson left the area to study at St. Lawrence University, after which she embarked on a three-year career at Burlington’s Howard Center, which helps people with developmental disabilities.
But through it all, she continued to feel an attachment to the Morgan Horse Farm, or MHF
“I said to my mom, ‘If that office job at the MHF ever opens up, that’s my dream job,’” she recalled.
Smithson was elated when her mom notified her a couple years ago that the job had been posted in the Addison Independent.
She threw her hat in the ring, was hired, and is now part of the management team that is leading the Morgan Horse Farm into a new era that will include a closer affiliation with academics at UVM and some upgrades to buildings on the 212-acre campus.
“One of the things we’ve been looking at during the past couple of years is, how do we make the MHF more aligned with the education mission of UVM?” Smithson said.
To that end, UVM officials are looking at ways to use the horse farm and its four-legged residents as learning tools for students considering careers in agriculture, veterinary medicine and other animal science disciplines.
“It’s a big transition,” Smithson said.
Assisting in that transition will be David Townson, chairman of UVM’s Animal & Veterinary Science Department. Townson will spend at least a day each week at the farm on Morgan Horse Farm Road, to make sure the communication line between the farm and university remains open and effective.
Townson recalled being an undergraduate at Michigan State University, which operates its own Horse Teaching & Resource Center. That center has been breeding pure bread Arabian Horses since the 1940s, a function that is incorporated in MSU’s educational programs.
   THE UNIVERSITY OF Vermont Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge has appointed a new administration team that will help the historic facility transition to more academic- and tourism-related activities. Pictured are Margot Smithson, operations coordinator, left; Kim Demars, farm manager; Sarah Fauver, horse specialist; Stephanie Dion, assistant dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and Dave Townson, chairman of the UVM Department of Animal & Veterinary Sciences.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“The students there were involved in most aspects of how the farm operated, and from that experience could go on to careers in the equine industry,” Townson said.
He believes the Morgan Horse Farm could provide a similar boost to UVM’s educational mission.
“It can provide all kinds of opportunities to our UVM students,” Townson said.
Next spring, the horse farm will host the 30th annual Equine Reproduction Workshop. The MHF also offers a longstanding apprenticeship program for students wanting hands-on learning for those seeking to work with horses.
“We have really laid some good groundwork for an academic program here,” Smithson said. “We are looking at how we can use the UVM Morgan herd to teach students and augment the animal science program at UVM.”
And the MHF has something special going for it, according to Townson.
“One of the things the farm has as a distinct advantage over many other land-grant schools is there is this recognition of the Morgan Horse as ‘the original American breed,’ so as to speak,” Townson said. “That’s something that no other institution can speak to, at this point.”
He hopes more UVM students will take advantage of what the horse farm has to offer.
“We have a lot of students at UVM who are interested in horses,” Townson said. The Morgan Horse Farm “provides a great opportunity to get some hands-on experience.”
Smithson is banking on others discovering the MHF, too.
The farm currently draws around 10,000 visitors each year. Admission is $5 per adult, with a sliding scale charge based on age. The farm is open May 1 to Oct. 31.
“It always amazes me when I’m out in the community and I tell people where I work, and they say ‘I haven’t been there since I was in elementary school,’ Or ‘I haven’t actually been there,’” Smithson said. “I say, ‘We’re only two-and-a-half miles away. Come here.’”
The coming months will see the new leadership team make the farm more of a destination.
“I’d like to see more opportunities for 4-H involvement — traditional showing, judging classes, perhaps building events around those,” said Smithson, who also talked about the potential of a “haunted forest” around Halloween times that could provide an additional showcase for the MHF.
“We want events to introduce people to the Morgan horse, the history of this place,” Smithson said. “This is an incredible institution; it will be 140 years old next year. There’s a lot of rich history we’d like to tell.”
Joseph Battell established the Morgan Horse Farm during the late 1870s. The University of Vermont has been steward of the site and herd since the mid-1950s.
Stephanie Dion is assistant dean for UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She said university officials are working with an architectural firm on a facilities plan that will address deferred maintenance and capital needs at the Morgan Horse Farm campus. UVM officials said they’ll be able to details from the report in the coming weeks.
“We are currently working with the administration to identify funds to address deferred maintenance, and then — as part of our strategic plan — make decisions on modifications to any structures, if needed,” Dion said. “Then we would likely do some fundraising and cost-share with the university (for the Morgan Horse Farm upgrades).”
While unable to share specifics of the report last week, Dion pointed out some likely repairs in store for the MHF campus — primarily to the farm’s 1878 main barn and its structural supports. Electrical systems in some of the buildings need to be updated and some windows need weatherizing, according to Dion.
“Actually, many of us expected a higher number,” Dion said of the potential cost of the MHF upgrades. “For the most part, the university has stayed on top of maintenance.”
On UVM officials’ wish list: A larger classroom space, a meeting/events room and a bigger laboratory in the main barn.
“Currently, (the lab) only holds six or seven students at a time, comfortably,” Dion said. “We’d like to expand that so we could bring more students down here.”
Also on the improvement docket: New fencing that would increase opportunities for the horses to be outside, and construction of an additional horse shelter.
Dion hopes this new chapter in the history of the MHF will see it truly become what one member of the university’s advisory board called  “the southern door to the University of Vermont.”
UVM President E. Thomas Sullivan offered the following statement on changes at the MHF:
“The Morgan Horse Farm played an important role in the state of Vermont. UVM is honored to count the farm as part of the university and is pleased that the farm is on track for changes that will elevate its effectiveness, efficiency and reputation. The university takes great pride in promoting the Vermont State animal. We look forward to integrating the farm with the teaching, research and outreach mission of the university.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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