Ralston, Sarah

Associate Professor
Areas of Interest: 
Effect of diet on glucose and insulin metabolism in horses, nutritional management of stress induced immune dysfunction in horses.
My Story: 
Ralston, Sarah L.
Sarah on JHL Mirfraz in Colorado, circa 1970

Never say “Never” has been a major theme in my life. I was born in Elyria, Ohio. My mother was a “homemaker” who not so secretly wished she could have used her master’s degree in marketing, and my father was an automotive engineer who specialized in international sales. My earliest memories were of counting how many horses I saw in a day/week but my mother, though supportive of my passion for animals, would say “we will never be able to afford a horse”. However, when I was 7 the company my father worked for asked him to go to Brazil to help set up a plant down there. “You’ll only be there three years-great educational experience for the kids!” they told him. He moved us to Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Within 6 months my parents allowed me to buy a pony with my life savings ($35!!), that we kept with other ponies, for free, at the American Golf Club. I was ecstatic; my parents were clueless (as were the parents of the other children who had ponies there). We had no supervision-the parents would go play golf while we went to play with our ponies. No helmets, no saddles (we did not know how to put them on!), we galloped our ponies around the dirt roads with gleeful abandon. I shudder to think of the risks we took, but we all survived, and, to this day, I’d rather ride bareback!

My pony had to be euthanized for a broken leg when I was about 10. I told everyone I wanted to become a veterinarian so I could help save other ponies. “You can never be a veterinarian-only men can be vets” I was told. So as a consolation my parents bought me a “real” horse (a chronic runaway from a riding stable for $100.00!) and joined the local riding club, where I took bi-weekly riding lessons from Colonel Roberto Mondino, who had been trained in classical Dressage in Saumur, France. Other trainers at the club said the horse was incorrigible, but within three years we had Black Satin doing Grand Prix (highest level) dressage.

The three years in Brazil had stretched to 7 and there was no indication that we would ever move back to the USA. Though I attended an American school, most of my friends were Brazilian. My father’s attitude was that we should explore the country as much as possible, so we had many wild adventures traveling around the interior of Brazil at a time when tourism (and paved roads!) more than 100 miles from the coast line were virtually unheard of. I was in heaven.

I was 14 my when my parents sent me off to boarding school in the USA because I was “going native”. During my first, rather traumatic, year away, Black Satin was diagnosed with “emphysema” and euthanized. On top of my intense homesickness for Brazil, my desire to become a veterinarian was renewed, despite people still telling me that women were never admitted to vet school.

When it came time to apply to college we were pushed by our advisors to apply to “Ivy League” schools, so I applied to the University of Pennsylvania because it had a School of Veterinary Medicine. During my first semester at Penn my parents called to tell me they were moving back to the USA the next spring. I went ballistic-threatening to drop out of college and go back “home” to take out my Brazilian citizenship. I NEVER wanted to live permanently in the USA! They convinced me to stay, but that shock, plus the freedom of college relative to a girl’s boarding school (I had a VERY good time socially), resulted in a rather disastrous first year that left me severely “transcriptionally challenged”. The dream of vet school became dimmer. I worked summers on Arabian horse breeding farms in Iowa and Connecticut.

In my second year I took a course in Animal Behavior followed by a laboratory course with an ethologist, Dr. John Smith, who became my mentor. My grades improved. He encouraged me to take upper level courses in Ethology and Behavior and to consider graduate school. Though I loved the work in animal behavior I was still determined to try for vet school. I did NOT want to do graduate work-I only wanted to be a vet. But by my senior year I had only been able to bring my GPA up to a 3.0. After three failed vet school applications, during which time I was working as a lab technician at Penn, I took Dr. Smith’s advice and started looking at Master’s programs in Animal Behavior. He gave me the names of several researchers he respected and I took off on a marathon trip cross country to check out the schools. The last one I went to, Colorado State University, was the one I was least interested in, because the professor Dr. Smith told me to contact had never written back, so

Ralston, Sarah L.
Sarah weighing a horse at Rutgers 1990

I was going there “cold”. Upon arrival I was informed the professor I wanted to see had been dead for several years! But I was directed to the current behavior specialist in Zoology and others in the Department of Natural Resources. The attitudes, research and environment were captivating. I was accepted without financial support, but borrowed tuition from my brother, bought one of the horses I trained in Iowa, JHL Mirfaz, and took a job on a horse farm to be able to support myself in this new endeavor.

I discovered a whole new world in Colorado. The Departments of Zoology and Natural Resources were very active and interactive. The graduate students helped each other with their disparate projects so we got a very broad exposure to research. My advisors tried to get me to study feeding behavior in horses but I insisted on doing social behavior; “who wants to count how many bites of feed a horse takes?”

I almost did not apply to Penn Veterinary School again that fall. I had NO desire to go back east. However I was encouraged by two of the professors I had known at Penn to apply for the Veterinary Medical Scientist Training Program (VMSTP), an NIH funded program where you got your PhD and Vet degree in 6 years, fully subsidized by the program. I thought there was no hope of my getting that-they only took 2 or 3 people a year, but applied anyway, since my mentors had promised to support my application.
When I got the initial acceptance letter to the regular veterinary program the next spring I almost turned them down. But by then I was also accepted into the VMSTP. You don’t turn down a free ride to vet school! So I returned to Philadelphia, determined to continue my equine behavioral research for my PhD. However the only faculty member who was doing large animal behavioral research was Dr. Clifton Baile, whose specialty was control of feed intake! So I did my PhD in the Department of Anatomy on factors controlling feed intake in ponies, counting how many bites of feed they took!

When I completed my two degrees I spent a year as a post-doc in Dr, Baile’s lab, applying, unsuccessfully, for positions in Anatomy, Behavior and/or Physiology. I was doing some behavior consultations in the clinics, but steered away from anything that involved actual nutrition. Then Dr. David Kronfeld, a nutritionist who had been on my PhD committee, told me that Colorado State’s vet school was looking for a nutritionist. I was reluctant, saying “The only nutrition course I’ve ever taken was the one you gave us-and I did not do well in that one!” “Dearie”, he replied, “anyone can learn to balance a ration; but you can get them to eat it! Since you are a woman, with your credentials they’ll HAVE to interview you- a free trip to Colorado!” So I applied, interviewed, and was hired as the “Mark Morris Chair of Clinical Nutrition”. I spent the first year frantically learning nutrition, one step ahead of my students. I came to love the topic, bought a small farm and happily settled in to spend the rest of my life teaching clinical nutrition and doing equine nutrition research in Colorado.

However, I was never one to keep my mouth shut. I “blew the whistle” on two rather major ethical issues in my 4th and 5th year at CSU and was told not to apply for tenure because I was “uncollegial." So, back to the job hunt.

My aging parents were in New Jersey and I had just gotten engaged to a man who was working in New Jersey when I heard that the Department of Animal Science at Rutgers was looking for an equine veterinary nutritionist. I had to apply. When I interviewed I was told privately that the industry leaders had dictated that a veterinarian be in the position, a qualification the Animal Science department leaders felt was unnecessary. So they had written a job description they thought no one would fill in hopes to be able to open it up to non-veterinary equine scientists. At the time a “veterinary nutritionist” was considered to be an oxymoron. But there I was. I have been here since 1989, longer than I ever thought I would survive in the east.

Continuing with the theme "Never say never": I never thought I'd get married. At 57 I'd come dangerously close a couple of times but was never able to hold onto a relationship for more than a year. In 2001 I met a divorced man man who was buying one of my research yearlings for his daughter. We have been together for 7 years now and are getting married
this Saturday...never say never!

My motto? Never say ‘Never’ unless you want it to happen!