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  • 4-H program teaches unique skills. By Colin

Handling Horses

When you think of after-school activities, most likely you’re visualizing, sports, music or speech and debate. Kids and teens today have dozens of choices in all three categories but also have other very fun and unique opportunities to bond with others. One such opportunity is working with horses at the Pierce County 4-H Horse department.

“Our goal is to assist in the development of responsible, well-rounded young adults,” said program Superintendent Jill McNally. “Youth leave our program with improved horsemanship skills, lessons in sportsmanship, learned sense of community and responsibility, and an understanding that hard work, time and dedication are key to accomplishing your goals.”

McNally is passionate about the program having started in 4-H when she was just 9 years old. She has been a member, parent and volunteer for 35 years and held the position of superintendent the past five.

Learning by doing is an essential part of the 4-H program. Adult mentors work with youth to accomplish a variety of activities from creating educational posters, public speaking, record keeping and working with animals, such as horses. The horse project is a way to bring young people with similar interests together. Kids and teens not only learn about horsemanship but other essential life skills through the program.

In order to participate in the 4-H Horse Project, kids must be at least 8 years old as of October 1. This is due largely to the size of the animals they will be working with. Pierce County does offer a "clover bud" program for younger youth, however, those activities do not involve physical interaction within the Horse Project. They can be in the program until they reach 18.

The Horse Project is broken up into numerous divisions based on activity and levels of ability. In the Western games division, members weigh their skills and accomplishments against the clock as they race through a number of different pattern classes, such as barrel racing. The performance division gives riders the opportunity to weigh their skills and accomplishments by their ability to perform against a standard of riding skills.

“We also have harness, dressage (sport horse), small equine, competitive trail, novice rider and green horse (a not fully trained horse) divisions,” said McNalley.

All divisions have a competitive and non-competitive side. Pierce County utilizes the "Danish system" for awards, meaning every competitor is rated against a standard or time and given a blue, red, or white ribbon, blue being the highest. This gives participants the opportunity to learn what they are doing right and where they can make improvements.

“We hire professional judges in those areas who have trained on the standards and have the knowledge to determine ribbon color, give feedback, as well as ensure rules are being followed,” explained McNalley.

Divisions take a competitive turn at the highest level of blues, where participants can potentially receive additional awards such as High Blues, Reserve Grand Champion and Grand Champion. These award riders for meeting and exceeding the standard as well as help determine who will potentially earn the right to compete at the State 4-H Fair.

Each year, more than 100 kids and teens with horses participate at the Pierce County Fair, which is held annually over the second weekend of August. The facility itself only has 88 stalls, so the program works with the fair to bring in portable stalls during fair week. It’s a big commitment as participants show up on Wednesday afternoon and stay until the last day of the fair on Sunday. Throughout the four-day fair, the 4-H Horse Club holds over 200 classes in the numerous divisions.

“The County Fair is the place for youth to show off what they have accomplished with their 4-H project. In addition, it is the road to picking the State Fair teams to compete against other top riders and handlers from counties all over the state at September's Western Washington State Fair in Puyallup,” said McNalley.

While many use the program as a way to compete, working with horses provides many life skills as well. Initially there is the simple responsibility of having to care for another living creature. It doesn't matter if it's raining, snowing, hot or cold, they must be fed and cared for. In addition, horses are very sensitive animals. They pick up on the emotions, fears and uncertainties of their handlers. They learn quickly that the relationship they build with their horse determines their ability to accomplish a goal and to grow as a team. If a handler is nervous or angry, most horses will react to that negative energy. They are herd animals whose instinctive behavior is to avoid, or run from, uncertainty.

“We watch youth and horses grow together, we see how trust, time, hard work and kindness lead to great accomplishments, in and out of the arena. Those skills roll over to many areas of life,” said McNalley.

The program is essentially run by all volunteers, with guidance from the extension office staff. Knowledge of horses is a plus, but the organization accepts any adult who loves working with children and is willing to complete the required background checks.

“It takes a lot of effort from volunteers to run events, to ensure safety rules are followed, to help with setup and planning,” McNalley said.

Qualifying shows are held in May, June and July to prepare for the County Fair. These shows take a tremendous amount of time to coordinate anywhere from 90 to over 100 youth and horses competing in many different classes and divisions. In addition, there are about 17 4-H Horse Clubs in the county with dedicated club leaders who coordinate club meetings and help with 4-H activities such as shows, public presentation events, judging, workshops and clinics.

For those interested in learning more about the program, the Pierce County 4-H Horse leaders put together a hands-on clinic for 4-H youth in the early spring. The event runs from Friday to Sunday and tends to focus on the younger and novice-level kids. It's often their first 4-H experience with their horse.

“We reach out to professionals in the horse community to put on 30 to 40 sessions with youth and horses,” said McNalley.

In addition, a tack sale and silent auction is held, in which the proceeds are used to purchase awards, assist with shows and provide youth grants for 4-H educational activities. This year’s clinic is scheduled for March 22 through 24 at the Western Washington State Fairgrounds, and you can find out more by visiting

Photos Courtesy of Pierce County 4-H Horse Program

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