Nearly two decades ago, Margaret Wooldridge heard about an elderly mare that was going to be sold in an auction.
“Auctions for horses don’t tend to end well,” Wooldridge said. “Two days before the auction, I said, ‘Don’t put her on the truck. I’ll take her.’
“That was the start. You can never have just one.”
Magic was the first of five horses and many other animals Wooldridge and her family have adopted over the years. Today, four horses, nine hens, one rooster, three cats and two dogs live on their 40-acre farm in Washtenaw County’s Freedom Township.
Wooldridge, professor of mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering, said living on a farm enriches her life and has provided a respite during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You’re deeply tied to the land when you’re raising animals,” she said.
Wooldridge grew up in suburbs but spent plenty of time on farms as a child. Her great-grandparents on her mother’s side were tobacco farmers in Kentucky. Her grandparents on her father’s side farmed wheat in Kansas, and she visited them every year during harvest season.
Wooldridge’s love of horses started in childhood and never waned. In 2001, she learned about a couple who planned to auction off their horses. The group included a retired broodmare with a sweet disposition.
“Magic was a good first horse. She was very low key,” Wooldridge said. “I do remember the affirmation that she was the right choice. My daughter was 2 years old, and so was my niece. They wanted to pet and brush the horse. Magic stood there and let them pet her.”
Magic lived for about two years. Three months after she died, the Wooldridge family — which includes Wooldridge’s husband, Steve, and children Julie and Thomas — bought a Rocky Mountain horse named Mocha. Three other horses followed: Buddy, Galahad and Cleopatra.
The Wooldridges lived in a house in Saline and initially kept their horses in boarding facilities. But they also owned 40 acres in Freedom Township, land on which they hoped to build a house one day. That dream eventually became a reality, and they moved there in 2016.
Today, the Wooldridges grow and harvest hay on their property. They also raise a small menagerie of animals, including nine hens and one spunky rooster named Harry.
“He’s like a silly character out of a British soap opera,” Wooldridge said.
The family donates most of the hens’ eggs to Saline Area Social Services, which gives them to people in need.
In addition to working as a professor at U-M, Wooldridge is the director of the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program. Student fellows partner with businesses, nonprofit organizations and communities in an effort to advance environmentally sustainable practices.
Wooldridge said living on a farm has helped inform her work with the program.
“If I hadn’t had the horses, I don’t think I would have this level of connection with the land,” she said. “The connection with the land has helped me understand the effects of climate change more intimately.”
Wooldridge said she has especially cherished spending time outdoors on the farm with her animals during the pandemic.
“The horses and the dogs and the chickens have been the keystone to my sanity in COVID,” she said. “People are trying to get out and about and be safe, and I have to be out several times a day. Social distancing is not an issue. My nearest neighbor is a quarter-mile away.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
The award ceremony in Washington, D.C., with the Secretary of Energy (Ernest) Muniz when I received the U.S. Department of Energy Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award. That was the most fulfilling moment for me — recognizing decades of my work; and it was both a fun and humbling experience.
What can’t you live without?
My family! My husband, Steve, and children, Julie and Thomas. They are fun, supportive and a gas to be around. They motivate and make everything I do possible.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
I love the U-M Museum of Natural History and the U-M Museum of Art. They have fantastic exhibits, and the ambience and settings are inspirational. Great places to grab a bench and work for a few hours.
What inspires you?
The good work my students do when they leave U-M. They are making a positive difference in so many people’s lives, and it is always great to hear from them.
What are you currently reading?
“The Thursday Murder Club.” I just finished “The Only Good Indians,” and it is a great book but pretty brutal. So I needed something less intense while I recharge. “The Thursday Murder Club” is about some friends who are senior citizens solving a local murder. The characters are super sweet while weaving in some of the challenges that come with age.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My parents. My father, Jere Hinkle, is a retired civil engineer, and my mother, Nancy Hinkle, is a retired pharmacist. Both have advanced degrees, set phenomenal examples, and still volunteer and are active in their community. They supported me and my sister, Karen Hinkle, a veterinarian, throughout our careers.