'It's science, not horse whispering'

Sophia Burke, 24, is doing an MSc in equine science at Writtle College

I've been interested in horses from an early age, but I don't have horsey parents so I don't know where it came from. I started riding when I was eight and, shortly afterwards, got my first pony on loan, but it wasn't until I was 12 that my parents bought me my first horse. I never thought that I wouldn't be doing something with horses, but I also never thought about it as an actual career.

People generally have no clue about equine-science as a subject, and people studying straight sciences such as chemistry and biology tend to look down on equine science. Many of them think that we spend all day riding around on horses, but actually it's an applied science and we don't ride at all (although you do get to ride on an equine-studies course).

We study modules such as anatomy, ethics and welfare, sports medicine, how to train a horse, nutrition and health. Nutrition is my area, but careerwise it's very competitive. So many people are studying equine science now that they are flooding the industry and you have to fight to get a job. I was a bit put off by that, but I want to work for a feed company. A lot of people on the course are in full-time work: some are university lecturers; others are in the feed industry. One woman student flies in from Dublin every weekend; we also have vets from India and Malaysia.

The most challenging module so far has been breeding; foals are lovely but I'm just not interested in breeding. The most difficult module has been health and immunities - trying to grasp the science and then apply it. We also did a module on animal welfare that touched on cows and pigs as well. As a result of watching videos in class, I'm now a vegetarian.

We don't do horse-whispering as such, but I've loved studying equine behaviour, and looking at evolution and how the horse's brain developed. Boy, the horse I have now, has been with me for 12 years. He's 16 years old, so he's getting on; he was an event pony but got badly injured and can't compete any more.

I ride him five times a week, and he was with me at college last year, at a local livery yard. I used him as a guinea pig when we studied complementary therapies such as stretching and massaging. A full-time Masters is draining; with Boy, I can go out every morning and clear my brain.