A Parent’s Guide for Horse Crazy Kids

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A Brief Parental Guide to 4-H and Other Equine Youth Groups

One of my favorite mentors has a saying that has stuck with me throughout the years. He would often use it to remind his team of 4-H agents and volunteers to stay focused during the long, hot, and often trying hours working together at our state’s 4-H Horse Show Championships. The saying was that horses were props for raising kids. Now, many years later and a parent myself, I can see just how true that statement really is. Whether or not they are one day able to have a horse of their own, horses are wonderful, living, breathing, kind hearted souls that can help to teach children an abundance of crucial life skills. But what is a parent who wasn’t raised with horses to do when their child approaches them with an interest?

While it may be tempting in the early stages of their interest to go through with purchasing a horse for your child, most experts agree that it is probably best to test the water first. By doing so you may be able to, down the road, prevent the unfortunate situation of an unwanted horse or pony that is difficult to place. It may also not be financially feasible for you to purchase a horse now or in the future. Luckily, there are several youth organizations that will allow you to test the level of commitment that your child has to horse ownership while also providing them with a firm foundation should you decide to help them pursue ownership at a later time.

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The 4-H Club. One organization that has stood the test of time is the 4-H Club. At the local level, the 4-H Club program is administered by 4-H Agents who are employed by a state’s land grant university as well as by volunteers. As I have been involved with the program first as a member, later as a 4-H Agent and finally as a volunteer it is the program, with the exception of college, where I personally gained the bulk of my early experience with horses.

Youth may become 4-H Club members as early as around age nine or ten and in the fourth grade. A 4-H Club member interested in horses might start out his or her career by giving a speech about horses or participating in, depending upon their age, a demonstration or interactive exhibit contest about, for example, how to correctly pick out a hoof, select feed for a horse, or clean a saddle.

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As the member ages the topics presented can become more complex such as an interactive exhibit about the genetics involved in the creation of certain coat patterns. The speech, demonstration, and interactive exhibit contests allow 4-H Club members to research a particular interest, learn how to put their thoughts into words and illustrations, and then make a presentation to an audience. As the member continues to age, he or she can participate in horse judging competitions or may choose to participate as part of a team in the horse bowl or hippology contests.

Horse judging, where members may compete individually or as part of a team, teaches members for in-hand or halter classes, about the anatomy of a horse while also teaching them about conformational faults and how to select animals for correct conformation based upon their intended use. When judging performance or under saddle classes, members are instructed about the different gaits and performance requirements for a variety of disciplines and taught to select animals who most accurately meet those requirements. Sometimes equitation classes, where the rider only is being judged, are added to the mix. Winners are based on a member’s ability to correctly place the class against an official judge. As part of the contest, older 4-H Club members are expected to give oral reasons about some of the classes, defending their order of selection of the animals in the class.

A 4-H Club member who is a part of the horse bowl or hippology teams can expect to learn about all aspects of horse care and management in addition to the correct identification and use of tack and equipment. During the middle school years some 4-H Club members who are active in their project may elect to apply to an academic type conference where they will spend several days on-site at your state’s land grant university for more in depth learning from university professors. Sometimes, those 4-H Club members interested in taking their involvement to the next level may form a Project Group and hold regularly scheduled meetings of an educational nature covering a wide variety of topics with local horse professionals.

Nearing the end of their 4-H career, if he or she decides to keep a portfolio or record book about their project, they may participate in an interview about their project involvement making them eligible to win college scholarships as prizes. Membership in the 4-H Club is free and horse ownership is not a requirement. That said, a member who owns a horse or is able to lease one may also choose to compete with the animal in almost any discipline at levels ranging from local to regional.

Some 4-H Horse Club programs are now also giving riding lessons. The level of involvement is entirely up to the member and his or her family. One on the really nice things about 4-H as with many of the horse youth groups is the life skills gained while the member is also learning about horses. Chief among those skills are communication, people, interview, and leadership skills. These make for self-confident youth who are prepared to handle almost any situation. The 4-H Club program is a great complimentary program to other youth programs out there but can also be a very good stand alone program. It can help active members and their families decide whether or not they want to take on ownership of a horse as well as providing a great foundation even if the member never owns a horse or postpones horse ownership to adulthood.

Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service or visit http://4-h.org/ for details.

The United States Pony Club. One youth program that makes a great compliment to the 4-H Club or can certainly stand alone is the United States Pony Club. The USPC has long been known for its top level educational programs. According the USPC web site, members advance through a proven curriculum demonstrating their progression in riding and horse management skills while earning certifications along the way. Members are taught, through horses, to set goals, teach others, and provide proof of their knowledge through testing.

Not unlike 4-H, the Club also provides opportunities for members to participate in competitions through rallies. Owning a horse is not a requirement but members should have access to a horse in order to get the most out of the program. Sometimes a center, or equestrian facility that has been recognized by the USPC to administer Pony Club programs, may be able to loan a horse to a member.

There is a membership fee with new membership starting at around $140, not including regional and local dues.  While there is no national minimum age at which a child may join the Pony Club, some clubs, centers, and regions have set their own minimum age.  Parents interested in enrolling their child in the Pony Club should research contact information available on the Club’s web site for additional answers to questions.

Visit the USPC at https://www.ponyclub.org/.

Discipline or breed specific youth organizations. Other available youth programs, either complimentary to 4-H or stand alone, may be breed or discipline specific. Just some of the many examples for breed specific programs alone include those offered by the American Hackney Horse, Morgan Horse, Saddlebred, Shetland, Arabian, Andalusian and Lusitano, Welsh Pony and Cob, and Quarter Horse Youth Associations.

Discipline specific organizations include those offered by the American Driving Society, The American Endurance Ride Conference, American Vaulting Association, the United States Dressage Federation, The United States Eventing Association, The United States Hunter Jumper Association, USA Reining, and the Western Dressage Association of America.

The majority of these organizations offers an educational component as well as a social aspect and provides opportunities to compete in a variety of contests and to have a voice in the organization’s governing body. Horse ownership, even for some competitions, is optional but membership fees do apply.  As the minimum age to join varies, if there is one present, parents of youth interested in joining should investigate these requirements. Those youth members who become active may decide to take their involvement to the next level and become a youth member of the United States Equestrian Federation where as youth members they may elect to participate in their Lettering Program which allows participants to earn emblems and pins for their riding, training, and participation in horse shows similar to lettering in other sports available at your child’s school.

Interscholastic Equestrian Association. A younger but still very effective complimentary or stand alone youth equestrian program is the IEA or Interscholastic Equestrian Association. Established for students in grades six through twelve in both public and private schools, the IEA proposes to introduce students to equestrian sport while promoting competition and instruction. It currently supports two disciplines, hunt seat and western. There are membership fees but horse ownership is not required.

Learn more by visiting http://www.rideiea.org/.

As a final note, this list of youth organizations is not all inclusive. If your attention is piqued and you would like still more options to consider, a bit of careful research can yield more. No matter if you decide to enroll your child in just one organization or several, all can provide useful skills. No membership fee is ever wasted since no matter your selection your child is almost guaranteed to learn team work, how to deal with success as well as failure, gain self-confidence as well as many other important skills. Regardless of your eventual decision about horse ownership, these skills can translate in to successful adults which can’t help but be better for all of us in the future.

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