Horse shows carry the weight of so many emotions – nervousness, excitement, disappointment, frustration, pride, jealousy, confidence… They have a lot of immediate reward, or lack-thereof, in the form of ribbons and placements; however, sometimes yielding the knowledge is a more difficult task. Young riders can easily get distracted by placing (or not) and if parents and trainers are not diligent the experience can end there. Now, this does not mean horse shows are bad. In fact, showing a horse opens the opportunity for youth to show mastery of their skills, sportsmanship, and goal-setting. What may be a more appropriate focus for young riders, especially inexperienced riders, is clinic participation. Horse clinics rather then horse shows are the focus here in Nassau County 4-H.
4-H Getting Started
Although the program is new, Ms. Kelsey of the Nassau County 4-H is pushing hard for all horse enthusiasts to participate or spectate local horse clinics. Their first clinic was held in June with a modest turn out. Riders were divided into 2 categories: beginner and intermediate. The beginner riders had minimal experience outside of trail riding so ring skills such as proper turns, reversals, and posture were emphasized. Prior to this day riding was a passive experience and the challenge of gaining control and exhibiting presence was a little nerve racking. Thankfully the clinician, Mrs. Britt Jester, recognized the growing insecurity and ended with her infamous “Around the world” game. Everyone left smiling, but in realization that a lot of work needed to be done. Parents watching the clinic had some new ideas for helping their youth and the youth set some new goals. Even the intermediate riders left aware of areas for improvement.
The clinics did not stop there. Nassau County opened another series of clinics in preparation for a local fair open show, led again by clinician Britt Jester. Riders wanted to succeed in the show world but still needed practice and direction. Two clinics were planned: one for riding and the other centered on halter/showmanship. Here youth would learn skills like which way to track in the arena when entering, how to line up for the judge, and new vocabulary words, etc. This was the easy part.
The challenge came in self-confidence.
Those that have been around horses realize how sensitive these animals are to their riders emotional state. Here was a new situation, at a new location, around new horses and naturally the new riders had some anxiety. As a result the horses were unfocused and antsy. One youth’s horse was even so excitable that we would not allow her to ride until the horse had been lunged appropriately by an adult and reassessed. While the horse was working on calming down, the youth asked, “is it normal for horses to freak out at shows?”. This was her first time off her property with her horse. This youth in particular has dreams of showing, but now her confidence was rocked. The clinician and Ms. Kelsey explained how if she is calm and confident that her horse would follow her direction and act the same way. She also was exhibiting envy over the other youth’s horses. With feelings of embarrassment and nervousness she stood by the arena and waited. Her task was to tell Ms. Kelsey things she saw the other riders doing that were both good and bad. She mentioned things her trainer has pointed out with her, and suddenly she realized she was not alone in mistakes.
The clinic was divided into groups again: beginner, intermediate, intermediate +. After watching a demonstration of proper execution the beginners entered. One youth who had previously attended the June clinic and had a rough time, said proudly, “I can’t wait to show you my riding. I’ve been practicing Ms. Kelsey!”. He indeed improved. Another youth was riding a new horse for the first time. This horse was an older horse and she was a quiet girl so the challenge came in being a strong enough leader for the horse to respond promptly. With encouragement this was accomplished and she asked to keep riding even after her time was over.
Now it was time for the intermediates. This included the previously mentioned youth whose horse was especially excited. The other kids oohed and ahhed at her little appaloosa, and her smiled returned. The first few minutes were rough as the horse was still nervous (as was the youth), but soon both horse and rider became so focused in learning nerves faded into confidence. By the time she left the arena the horse was perfectly in sync with her and you could not wipe the smile from her face. We asked how she felt and what she learned. “So much…like how if I’m calm Josie will be too. Oh, and that everyone makes mistakes but it’s okay.” She gave Ms. Kelsey a hug and assured her she’d be at the next clinic.
Nassau County 4-H has several more clinics in the works on topics from hoof care/farrier work, training, gaining ground skills/respect, and even a “what the judge is taught” perspective clinic.
Some Tips for Success
- Schedule to host your clinic at a trusted and safe facility, with areas to stall or pen horses while waiting.
- Enforce wearing helmets and have waivers signed before horses leave the trailer.
- Have a knowledgeable, but kind clinician; Especially in counties, like Nassau, with a very new horse program kindness is key.
- Group by experience level, but have everyone watch the entirety of the clinic.
- Have volunteers with horse backgrounds to help watch for red flags.
- Ask each youth what they learned!
- Ask each parent how they plan to help the youth continue improving.
- Don’t be discouraged by low attendance- your clinic program will grow as the value is proved.
- Focus on riding improvement rather than show readiness. Riding skills go beyond the show ring.
- Go for a variety of topics!
As an agent, we can’t always survey to prove youth development.
There is incredible power and insight to sitting along the fence line and observing simple stories unfold.
Riding is more than ribbons; It’s about horse-man(relation)ship.