E. L. Johnson wrote, “The purpose of the 4-H horse program is to provide young people an opportunity to participate in a series of activities designed to improve citizenship, sportsmanship, horsemanship, character, competitive spirit, discipline, and responsibility while creating an atmosphere for learning and awareness of the life about us.” (UF Department of Animal Science, n.d.) While most think of horse programs as a program for the rich and just about showing, this statement, as well as the philosophy and goals of the Clay County 4-H Horse program, is quite different. The use of horses, shows, and equine clinics are merely the “carrots” we use to motivate young people to participate in education. Once there the education we provide extends far beyond equine and riding knowledge, we take these opportunities to develop valuable life skills. 4-H is not in the business of horse shows, we are in the business of providing researched-based education. If you want a successful learning experience, you need to engage the audience while they are doing what they are interested in… in this case horses.
Now horse shows do have their place and in-and-of themselves can be valuable learning experiences, though as youth development agents we must look at the bigger picture and what our objectives are. Building confident leaders, strong communicators, community-conscious citizens, and well-rounded young people are at the forefront of those objectives. Furthermore, we have been able to provide learning opportunities to both youth with horses and youth without, bringing them together to learn from each other as well as develop friendships and youth-led teaching opportunities. While competing is healthy and provides opportunities for youth to practice sportsmanship and develop character, providing non-competitive learning experiences provides opportunities for youth to learn together, understand differences and develop a professionalism/respect for each other’s strengths while hopefully encouraging each other through their weaknesses.