When students sign up for Jim Wyllie's equestrian classes at Pepperdine University, they have to be prepared to hear about art, science, history and an occasional story about his one-time neighbor, Ronald Reagan.
To Wyllie, equestrian training is not only a way to help meet the four-unit physical-education requirement at Pepperdine, but is also a means to pique a student's curiosity about an array of subjects. "Our job is to teach you to ride and to educate you while we do it," he said.
Wyllie, 68, is a man of many interests and he likes to share them with students. His office in the equestrian center on the Malibu campus is filled with books on music, art, history, anatomy, gardening and, of course, horses.
During the early 1950s, Wyllie raised horses and taught riding at the Paramount Ranch in Agoura. His next-door neighbor was Reagan, who was then an actor.
The two became friends, Wyllie said, and when Reagan became governor of California he helped Pepperdine in one of its first fund-raisers for equestrian education. One of Wyllie's most prized possessions is an autographed picture of Reagan and the President's favorite horse, Little Man.
Students never know where Wyllie's train of thought will take him. While showing visitors around the school stables the other day, for example, he lined up a massive Hanoverian steed next to a smaller, fine-featured Arabian.
"Which one would you bet on in a race?" he asked.
The visitors chose the Arabian.
"That's right," he agreed. "That's why the Crusaders had such a rough time. . . . " And in a flash he was off on a discourse about how the armor-laden Christian soldiers relied on the strength of the heavy horses in battle, while the Muslims outmaneuvered them on nimble Arabians.
Pepperdine students apparently don't mind his digressions. There is always a waiting list for Wyllie's classes, university officials said. He teaches 180 students a year at Pepperdine, an equal number for Santa Monica College Community Services and hundreds more in weekend classes that are open to the public.
The college has 26 horses, mostly quarter horses and appaloosas. Among these, four thoroughbreds, two Andalusians, a Hanoverian and a Lippizaner were donated to the college.
A horse must have a special temperament to work well with inexperienced riders, said Wyllie, who's in charge of procuring the animals for the college. He has culled Pepperdine's horses from about 500 that have been given tryouts in the 15 years since the program started, he said.
Pepperdine provided three horses for the 1984 Olympic pentathlon. Wyllie's daughter, Cheryl, a senior at Pepperdine, helped train the animals for competitors from Finland and Portugal, and Wyllie was an official timer for the event.
Horses chosen for the Olympics had to be extremely adaptable because riders were not allowed to work with them until just before the competition started, Wyllie said. The horses were chosen for their patience and ability to take direction from a new rider without hesitation, he said.
Raised in Rhode Island
Wyllie was raised in Rhode Island, flew reconnaissance planes over the North Atlantic in World War II and then studied industrial design at the Hollywood Art Center.
When he was in his mid-30s he got hooked on horses, he said. As an industrial designer, he was asked to draft plans for a stable at a private riding club in Brentwood.
He became interested in how people learn to ride, he said, and that began a 35-year teaching career at schools including UCLA, California Lutheran College and Pepperdine.
Wyllie recently was asked to provide a videotaped equestrian training program that the federal government adapted for Secret Service agents who guard the President when he visits his ranch in Santa Barbara.
Wyllie, of Malibu, looks the part of the Western rancher. He shows up for work in a plaid shirt, corduroy pants and well-worn boots. Sun-tanned and fit, he wears his white hair in a neatly trimmed brush cut. When he goes out riding in the hills behind the Malibu campus, he dons a well-worn straw hat to shade his face from the sun.
Although other colleges offer equestrian training, few can offer access to miles of trails right on campus like Pepperdine, Wyllie said. The university's equestrian program can enable a novice to ride comfortably by the time he completes the semester's basic training, he said.
"Riding is a very easy thing to teach," said Wyllie, who instructs advanced students as well as beginners.
"The hardest thing in teaching is providing the motivation," he said. "In learning to ride, after you bounce 800 or 900 times in the saddle, you get motivated pretty fast."