Since joining the faculty of the University of Delaware in July 2009, Carissa Wickens hasn’t let the grass grow under her feet. In her dual appointment as Cooperative Extension equine specialist and assistant professor of animal science, Wickens has been expanding the UD herd, developing new undergraduate courses, implementing adult and youth education programs, and meeting with members of Delaware’s equine industry.
About the only thing Wickens hasn’t done these past eight months is to ride horses as much as she would have liked. “I keep a riding helmet in my office closet but there hasn’t been enough time during the week to get on a horse,” says Wickens. “There’s just too much going on.”
Not that she’s complaining. Wickens says that her job is a perfect fit for her interests and strengths. “I was excited to join UD because of the ability to become involved in hands-on teaching opportunities, not only with undergrads but also with youth and adults through my Extension appointment,” says Wickens. “I know what a valuable resource Extension can be for horse owners and want to assist Delawareans with their equine concerns.”
Wickens has embraced her outreach role from her first few weeks on the job, which coincided with the state 4-H Horse Show at the Delaware State Fair. Accompanied by Susan Truehart Garey, Cooperative Extension’s livestock agent, Wickens strolled the Fair’s stalls, show rings and exercise tracks, eager to connect with horse owners and enthusiasts.
She is currently working with the state Department of Agriculture to develop an equine educational needs assessment survey that will be conducted this summer. “I want to see what types of programs and educational resources our constituents are most interested in and learn more about the specific issues and topics they need help with,” says Wickens. “The equine industry is very important to the state and I want to offer all possible support.”
Delaware’s equine industry, which includes race tracks, equine show and competition facilities, and breeding, training and boarding operations, is strong and continues to grow, notes Wickens. Delaware saw more than $279 million in expenditures for equine-related purposes in 2003, the most recent data available. There are approximately 13,000 horses in the state; the majority used by recreational riders and 41 percent in racing.
Wickens has been accepted to be a faculty advisor to the UD Extension Scholar Program and will have an Extension Scholar in place this summer to help her further develop Extension’s equine program.
And Wickens has been just as busy in her role as assistant professor of animal science. She led in the purchase of four new horses, a quarter horse and three Arabians, to complement the three quarter horses and three Haflingers already part of UD’s herd.
She also has assisted with recent improvements to the equine teaching facilities on campus.
This spring she is teaching Introduction to Equine Science. In the fall, she’ll be teaching Equine Management, a new capstone course that she’ll develop this summer.
“I’ve really been enjoying the Intro Equine Science course,” says Wickens. “I have a wonderful group of 18 students, including a local resident who owns race horses and wants to learn more about equine science.”
“I served on the search committee for Carissa’s current position,” says Jan Seitz, associate dean and director of UD Cooperative Extension. “I was impressed with Carissa at our initial meeting and even more so now that I have seen her at work. I felt sure she would hit the ground running but I had no idea how fast she would run.”
Even though she isn’t riding as much as she would like, Wickens is at UD’s Equine Barn almost every day, whether to check in with a farrier who’s trimming a horse or connect with farm superintendent Scott Hopkins.
Wickens comes to UD from Michigan State University, where she received her Ph.D in animal behavior and welfare in 2009. The focus of her doctoral research was stereotypic behavior in horses, with an emphasis on crib-biting, and how to manage such behaviors. She resides in North East, Md., with her husband, Edward, who is a research assistant for UD’s dairy operation, and their three-year-old daughter, Eileen.
Wickens started riding horses at the age of eight but, thus far, her daughter shows more interest in another farm animal. “Eileen loves seeing the dairy cows when she comes to visit the UD Farm,” says Wickens. “But she is becoming increasingly interested in the horses.”
Fortunately for Delaware’s equine industry, horses are very much on the mind of Carissa Wickens, as she works to improve Extension’s equine program.