Texas A&M University professor Dr. Jim Heird, an internationally-renowned equine expert, is the new president of the American Quarter Horse Association after five decades of dedication to the organization.
The announcement Monday (March 5) came at the end of the AQHA’s four-day annual convention in Jacksonville, Florida where many of its more than 250,000 members from 50 countries gathered to learn from and celebrate the largest equine breed registry in the world.
The scholar’s presidency marks a first for the Texas-based organization: Never before has the American Quarter Horse Association elected an academic as its leader. Though Heird’s career includes 42 years of teaching, researching and mentoring at four universities, his command over the areas of equine conformation and behavior is recognized well beyond classrooms and labs.
Heird, who has coordinated the Equine Initiative at Texas A&M for nine years, said he’s eager to build on the AQHA’s goal to transform and grow the association.
“We’re an organization that’s 78 years old and there are many things being done that remain great. But we need to look at all aspects and make sure we’re meeting the demands of today’s youth, today’s amateur, and certainly the owner who is a professional outside the horse industry. We need to make sure we’re giving them value for their membership.”
AQHA is an international group dedicated to the preservation, improvement, promotion and record-keeping of the American Quarter Horse. It sanctions competitive events, maintains the official registry of all quarter horses and houses a museum in Amarillo.
While protecting the association’s finances while growing reserves is a priority, Heird listed other keys to success including:
- Providing more value to the members.
- Communicating with youth on their own digital information platforms.
- Making educational resources more available through webinars.
“We need to make sure our breeders are served; that our judges and stewards are the best trained and capable in the world; that our races and shows are fair, drug-free and honest; that ranch producers are appreciated and understood; and that we provide a show environment where our horses can excel with riders ranging from professionals to youth,” Heird said in his acceptance speech. “And we need to do all of this while making sure that our horses are treated safely and humanely every day.”
There is tremendous potential for expanding AQHA membership is outside the United States, Heird said, adding that the organization will strive to be more inclusive.
His latest achievement follows a far-reaching list of honors that include an Award for Excellence from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, dozens of national leadership accolades, being named Horseman of the Year by the Colorado Horse Council, an appointment as director of the Texas Racing Hall of Fame and being inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Dr. Eleanor Green, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, said Heird has devoted his professional career and personal life to horses, the American Quarter Horse in particular.
“He has focused his many unique talents to advance the breed, the association, the membership, the equine industry and ‘the horse’ from more conventional roles as a horseman and equine industry leader, as well as from unconventional roles as an academician and academic administrator,” the dean said.
“He is a scholar, an innovator, a ground-breaker, an influencer, a role model, a game-changer, a program-builder, an equine welfarist, a generous giver of his time and talents, and a longtime, loyal member of AQHA,” Green said.
The Equine Initiative, which connects A&M to the industry through extensive outreach programs, is a collaborative effort between the Department of Animal Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Heird said the program involves teaching future industry leaders, research and veterinary medical care that improves not just the industry, but the welfare of the horse. It works toward curriculum enhancement, outreach and engagement expansion, facility construction and developing partners, said Heird, who holds the Glenn Blodgett Equine Chair at A&M.
Heird landed Texas A&M in the international spotlight with the development of the $35 million Thomas G. Hildebrand DVM ’56 Equine Complex, a much-needed state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2014 with a show arena, classrooms, meeting spaces, barns for A&M’s Women’s Equestrian Team and a cross country course used by the college track team.
“There was an event of some type out here 285 days during 2017,” he said, adding that 32,000 people used the facility last year. It’s even been rented for weddings and as a work retreat site. “It was not built with that intent, so it’s surpassed our wildest dreams.”
He’s currently raising funds and developing plans for a new equine nutrition and reproductive research facility at the complex, as well as an orthopedic and wellness center for horses at the vet school.
At a gallop
Heird grew up on a small east Tennessee tobacco farm where horses dominated his first dreams, he said. His father ended most days telling him a bedtime story born from his college days in Kentucky where the blue grass country side was lined with white fences and horses grazed in picturesque fields.
“Horses are all I can ever remember,” he said. “I read all the popular books on horses and was consumed by them. I remember my dad coming home and saying we needed to go to a man’s place to look at a new breed of horse brought in from out west. He said they’re called quarter horses. I fell in love. The breed can do anything – they have a great disposition, even-temperament, they’re fast, they work well with beginners and veterans, they can work cattle and they had the mystique of coming from big ranches out west. It was that classic image of the cowboy’s horse.”
He was about 12 at the time and soon ended up working for a breeder cleaning out stalls and exercising the horses, never imagining he’d live out his dream spending his life studying, enjoying and educating others about his favorite breed.
“That’s really a tribute to my parents – recognizing and realizing what I had a passion for and supporting me,” he said.
It’s no surprise that Heird went on to do the same for scores of students over the decades, said Craig Huffhines, executive vice president of AQHA.
“He’s a globally-renowned horseman and university administrator who has influenced hundreds of equestrian and agrarian leaders around the world,” Huffhines said.
“It will take bright minds coming together who are committed to excellence — Dr. Heird is a catalyst that has been proven to do just that,” Huffhines said, adding that the researcher is not just driving educational opportunities at A&M, but also innovation.
“It’s exciting for me to see the kind of top caliber leadership at our university,” said Huffhines, a 1991 A&M graduate and father of two Aggies. “Texas A&M has been and always will be an institution of higher excellence and it takes people like Dr. Heird to create that kind of success.”