Southern High School's Agriculture Science program

Students from Southern High School's agricultural studies program won Reserve Chapion in the horse evaluation competition at the national Future Farmers of America convention in Louisville, KY. Left to right: Michaela Pyles, Sierra Criste, Brooke Catterton, Kelly Poe. (Photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / November 12, 2013)

Southern High School senior Brooke Catterton can stare at a field of thoroughbreds and, in a head-to-hoof analysis, straightaway tell you which horses would likely have injury-free racing careers.

In fact, the member of the school's Future Farmers of America horse judging team, which finished national runner-up in a recent FFA horse judging competition, said she's so apt at distinguishing horses that some local residents looking to buy a thoroughbred or quarter horse seek her counsel.

"A very well-set quarter horse would be one that is very muscular, very wide from behind and in front," said Catterton, 17. "A thoroughbred would be a lot leaner but a little thinner, just because it needs that lighter weight to be able to gallop and sprint around a racetrack. It should be deep through the chest so it can take in more air: a lighter set but still muscular."

Catterton, junior Kelly Poe, sophomore Sierra Criste and senior Michaela Pyles placed second overall at the recent National FFA Horse Evaluation Career Development Event at the organization's convention in Louisville, Ky. Southern High entered the national event after capturing the state championship.

The competitive event matches students who are tested on their ability to evaluate horses. They also give oral presentations that include articulating reasons for favoring one horse over another.

Poe, 16, placed second overall in individual horse judging and was awarded a $900 scholarship, while Catterton finished sixth place individually for a $400 scholarship.

Adair High School FFA of Oklahoma captured the national championship in a field of 44 state championship teams.

Placing second "was really crazy for me, because I came into class really not knowing anything about horse judging," Poe said. "I could tell you some parts of the horse, and the colors, but I couldn't tell you much more. So being able to take second place overall in winning that $900 really set it in stone that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life."

For Southern High, it marks its second national finish in five months. The group captured the 2013 Pony of the Americas Club National Congress runner-up award in St. Louis in July.

It's not a bad showing for a school that launched its agriculture science program just two years ago. School officials say the program prepares students for more than 300 careers in agriculture.

As more schools nationwide drum the benefits of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, learning, the students' success in agriculture education has shed light on a facet of the sciences often overlooked amid emphasis on computer technology.

U.S. agriculture officials are taking note, saying that producing a nationwide pool of students versed in agriculture science will be vital to feeding a rapidly increasing world population.

"These young ladies have taken their instruction and their science-based education in agriculture to a level that many will never achieve," said Steve Brown, program specialist at the U.S. Department of Education and National FFA board chair. He visited Southern High on Thursday, when the horse judging winners were honored at a school reception.

Brown said in recent years, FFA officials have seen growing student interest in agriculture. He said last school year, national FFA membership grew by 24,000 over the previous year.

"As our population across this world grows to approximately 9 billion people by 2050," Brown said, "the need to have young people willing to be part of the agriculture industry — and they may not always produce it, but they're going to help process it, market it to get the consumer, and feed this world — is critical."

Though the Southern High School program has flourished in a short time, it wasn't an easy sell, particularly with parents, said Southern High agricultural education teacher Joshua Rice.

"The challenge is educating the community and the parents as to what agriculture education is and what it can offer for their children," Rice said. "It's getting past the stereotype that students taking agriculture education classes are going to be farmers.

"I had to change that perception. A lot of people in agriculture programs become doctors," Rice said. "And you can become a veterinarian. You can become a lawyer. You can own your own business."

He was so successful at changing perceptions that Southern High parents joined the school's FFA alumni and the county farm bureau to raise $10,000 for the horse judging team to attend the Louisville competition.

The Harwood school has found a niche in an area in rural Anne Arundel filled with horse farms, including a couple adjacent to its campus. Catterton, Poe and Pyles grew up around horses, either living on a farm or working on one. But they say their knowledge and expertise about horse judging came only after taking school courses.

Catterton said when the program began, dozens of students signed up but interest waned soon after. She summoned Poe to take part and said the two should lead the way in helping the program flourish. Soon came students like Criste, who did not grow up on a farm and hardly knew anything about horse judging.

"I thought it was going to be something new and interesting," Criste said. "I went in there and pretty much loved it and wanted to keep doing it."

Criste said to prepare for the competition, the team spent hours becoming versed in hippology, or the study of horses, including nutrition and vaccinations. It meant touring nearby farms and watching videos.

In addition to displaying their expertise in competition, members of the team have applied it to their work on local farms. Catterton said horse judges might not be apt at picking race finishes, since other factors such as track conditions and weather play a major part. But she said she could determine, based on a horse's physique, its potential for a good galloping stride and whether it would be prone to injury.

Pyles said she has helped a farm owner cure a horse of a bacterial infection and has been asked for her expertise from someone looking to lease a horse.

And the students say their knowledge has fueled their quest to learn more. "You win second place and you do well," Poe said, "but there is still so much you can learn and there is still so much to say, 'I can be better at this.'"

joseph.burris@baltsun.com