What do a retired banker from Blount County, a 13-year-old honor student from Winston County and a former chicken farmer from Crenshaw County have in common? They're all horse people, and their passion for four-legged companions is sometimes hard for outsiders to understand.
|Jeff Cornelius (top) walks among a pasture of geldings on his ranch in Blountsville; 13-year-old Kaitlyn Mobley of Haleyville (center) enjoys competing in jumping classes at local, state and regional shows; and Randall "Razor" Cox of Crenshaw County takes his family for a carriage ride on a Sunday afternoon.|
But ask a horse lover like Jeff Cornelius what's the big attraction and his answer is usually the same as others' -- "I just love 'em."
Cornelius, 58, lives in the one red light-town of Blountsville. Divorced with three grown daughters, he retired from the banking business a few years ago, and his part-time job and hobby became his full-time occupation. He now owns 85 American Quarter Horse brood mares, eight breeding stallions and a few show horses - all with foundation pedigrees.
"I try to breed a multipurpose horse," Cornelius said as he walked among a pasture of young geldings. "I want my horses to be able to do whatever job you ask them to do -- whether it's chasing a calf in a rodeo, roping a bull in the pasture or giving you a nice Sunday afternoon trail ride. My horses have to have good conformation and a good mind to go with it."
Cornelius' horses are a good example of the quality of horses being raised and bred in Alabama. In fact, after a nationwide search, eight of his geldings were selected earlier this year to be featured in "The Road to the Horse" -- a contest before a sold-out crowd in Murfreesboro, Tenn., featuring four of the world's top horse whisperers.
"A lot of people may not think of Alabama as a horse state," Cornelius said, "but our state raises some mighty fine horses that compete and hold their own in state, regional and national competition."
Thirteen-year-old Kaitlyn Mobley agrees. She's a horse lover whose hobby led her to the show ring. She's been riding since she was 6, and her parents, Jeff and Pam Mobley of Haleyville, have encouraged her along the way.
"My dad had horses when he was younger and my granddad (Jerry Mobley, the husband of Federation State Women's Committee Chairman Ronnie Mobley) always wanted me to ride," Kaitlyn said. "I was willing to ride anything -- a cow, a horse that bucked -- it didn't matter -- I loved it!"
Kaitlyn has been taking riding lessons since she was 7, but unlike Cornelius who prefers western tack and attire, she prefers an English saddle, riding breeches and high-top boots.
Already an experienced equestrian at 13, Kaitlyn's awards are too numerous to count -- she's been a champion at the local and state level and represented Alabama at the Southern Regional 4-H Horse Show last year where she competed against youngsters from 13 states. Her favorite event is jumping, and she usually practices four days a week at Hunter Creek Stables in Fayette with the help of trainer Jill Dean. That time may extend to six days a week when show season is in full swing. Kaitlyn is passionate about horses, and she's set some pretty high goals for herself.
"When I graduate from high school I want to attend Auburn University on a scholarship and be on the equestrian team there," she said, "and I hope to one day ride in the Olympics."
Kaitlyn's dad said horses are a great way to help children develop discipline and self esteem, and kids can learn that hard work pays off.
And Kaitlyn knows about hard work. While many of her friends are busy with what she calls "normal" after-school activities, she's off to riding lessons or headed out of town for a horse show.
"My horses are just like my friends playing softball or soccer everyday," Kaitlyn said. "Horses are my sport."
For Randall Ray (Razor) Cox, a former poultry farmer in south Crenshaw County, horses are a hobby and a habit that evolved over the years, but his interest doesn't involve competition.
Raised by his grandparents and an aunt and uncle who were sharecroppers, as a boy Cox plowed the fields with mules. It was hard work he admits, but it taught him a lot about horses. He has a variety of buckboards, carriages, buggies and even a restored chuck wagon. He likes to hitch up one of his Standardbred geldings when he and his wife Carol go for a ride.
"Riding horses is a wonderful stress reliever," she said. "Jennifer and Lyndsay (the Coxes' two grown daughters) grew up on horses, and we have lots of memories of riding together over the years."
The Coxes may take a 10-mile carriage ride down the dirt road near their home in the Bullock community in Crenshaw County, or they might head down to Geneva County, where they spend the weekend camping and riding in the national forest.
"Some people have motorboats or motorcycles, but horses are our hobby," Cox said. "If I had all the money I've spent on horses over the years, we could probably retire and live in a condo at the beach if we wanted to, but then we wouldn't have all our memories."
For whatever reason, interest in horses is growing in Alabama, and Auburn University has recognized that fact. This fall, the university hopes to begin offering an equine science track through the Department of Animal Sciences in the AU College of Agriculture.
Courses in the new degree track include an introduction to horse management and training as well as courses in nutrition, biomechanics and shoeing, marketing, coaching, reproductive management and exercise physiology.
"This isn't a series of horseback-riding classes," said Animal Sciences Professor and Extension Horse Specialist Cindy McCall. "This is a strong, science-based program that will prepare students for upper-level-management jobs in the horse industry."
For more information on the proposed equine science track, contact McCall at 334-844-1556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The proposed equine science program is a good fit at Auburn, McCall said, noting that as the number of horses increase in the state, so do the demands for professionals to care for and train them.
Much of Alabama's landscape is rural with about 80 percent of it covered in forests, plus the climate allows for riding and recreation almost year-round. The interest among young people, especially through Alabama's 4-H Program, has steadily increased in the past decade.
Last year, the Alabama State 4-H Horse Show had more than 2,000 entries over the four days it was held in Montgomery. Next year, the show will expand to five days to accommodate all the classes. Auburn University began a varsity equestrian team in the fall of 2002, and already the women's team is making a name for itself among some very stiff competition.
"Alabama is a family-horse state where the majority of horse owners enjoy trail riding as a way to spend leisure time," said McCall, a horse owner herself. "I can testify, that if you love horses -- and I do -- there's nothing else like it."