Oatridge College is on track to become a centre of excellence in equestrian skills and related studies. Raymond Ross reports.There's a fascination in watching farriers at work as they shape red-hot bars of metal into horseshoes. It may be to do with the rhythmic tapping of hammers against the quiet roar of the forge, the sudden illumination from a brush of sparks or the quiet, almost meditative quality of concentration which fills the farriery. You're watching students of an ancient craft; a craft first introduced into this country by the Romans two millennia ago.
We're standing in the new pound;1.5 million farriery, complete with engineering workshops, at Oatridge College, in West Lothian, where the farrier students are putting themselves through their paces before the horses arrive for shoeing later that day.
The farriery is the third major project to be completed this year in an pound;8.5 million development which has already seen the opening of the international-standard Scottish National Equestrian Centre and a state-of-the-art learning centre on the college's 283-hectare estate above the village of Ecclesmachan in the Bathgate Hills.
It's part of the college's drive to become a centre of excellence for land-based education and training. But it's also just one example of Oatridge's commitment to delivering employability skills, to strengthening its links with industry and improving its facilities while promoting inclusion and accessibility.
"Five years ago, we were an agricultural college," says David James, the principal. "But the industry has diversified and we are here to support the land-based sector through our departments of engineering and farriery, land use (which includes horticulture, greenkeeping and countryside management) and equine and animal care."
Styling itself "Scotland's premier land-based college", Oatridge is well positioned to provide such support. Despite its rural setting, it is in the central belt and boasts its own commercial farm (dairy, beef, sheep, pig and arable) and nine-hole golf course set in 700 acres of arable land, mixed woodlands, watercourses and wetlands, and unimproved grasslands.
In equestrian terms, as well as the new SNEC indoor performance arena, it is developing all-weather gallops and a cross-country training course and has already set up the Scottish Racing Academy in partnership with East Lothian Council and the Northern Racing College.
"The equine industry in Scotland alone is worth pound;500 million to the economy and, as with our other enterprises in agriculture, animal care, countryside management and land-based engineering, our aim is to offer practical, vocational education and training to our students to make them highly employable and to help fill the needs of the industry," says Mr James.
The college's 400 full-time and 3,000 part-time students spend one third of their time in the classroom, one third in the field and one third in the workshop. The 70 equine studies students, for example, will start their day on a rota basis at 6.45am, mucking out stables and grooming the horses before breakfast. The three-hour morning and afternoon sessions will be spent with the academic team who teach riding skills, horse maintenance and theory in the classroom, in the arena, or outdoors cross-country. At 4.30pm, the students are back "on duties" in the stable till 6pm with some returning to check the horses at 8.30pm.
"The students soon learn that it's not all glamour," says Lucy Brindley, the SNEC's horse unit manager. "But the SNEC provides staff and students with the best facilities in the country and the opportunity to meet and work with industry leaders and sporting champions."
From spring next year, Lothians children with disabilities and learning difficulties will be taught to perform gymnastics ("vaulting") on the back of a moving horse at the SNEC as part of a programme to help them develop physically, emotionally and socially. The programme, part of Oatridge's philosophy of inclusion and accessibility, will be delivered by the Riding for the Disabled Association in partnership with the charity Equibuddy, which buys and trains vaulting horses for RDA branches.
The college also works with schools from across Scotland, offering "taster" courses and work experience on the farm and golf course and in the engineering workshops through Skills for Work.
It has set up the Rural Skills Academy, which allows access to training and work for people with social, medical and employment difficulties, including former drug-addicts and offenders, and its nearby Suntrap Garden at Gogarbank runs regular courses for people with learning difficulties, some with particularly complex needs.
It is one of the few places in Scotland to use gardening and horticulture as a therapy to improve the health and wellbeing of individuals.
"Oatridge looks upon itself as a family of communities," says Mr James. "As such, we support diverse needs in the same way we support diverse industries. At any given time, we are working in partnership with 650 small and medium enterprises. We're at the heart of supporting Scotland's rural industries."
"I did my certificate in agriculture last year and spent the summer employed by the college as part of the main-tenance team. This year, I'm doing my certificate in greenkeeping and hope to get an apprenticeship at a golf or racing course. I'm going to Mussel-burgh Racecourse on work placement.
"The facilities are excellent, up to date, and the teaching's good too. "It's prac-tical and that's important, because employers are looking for experience. I have that here, not just theory."
"I hope to go to Aberdeen University next year to take my fourth year (Honours) in countryside manage-ment when I finish my HND here. Through the college, I've had work experience with Scottish National Heritage and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the kind of organisations I'd like to work for.