Leaving the house at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, sometimes in rain, snow or frigid winds, may not be every teen's idea of a good time. But 18-year-old Kassie Maricle wouldn't have it any other way. Kassie is member of the Clovers 4-H Club in Palos Park, Ill. She and about 20 of her fellow 4-H club members spend their Saturdays at a local farm where each teen leases a horse to care for and ride.
For the past 5 years, Kassie's charge has been a quarter horse named Cinnamon 'n Sugar. Kassie not only adores the horse, but she says she has become close friends with the other 4-H members in the group. "When you ride with people every Saturday, you automatically have a common bond. Everybody starts out talking about horses, but then you realize you have other things in common – anything from boys to school."
What Is 4-H?
4-H stands for: Head, Heart, Hands and Health. "My head to clearer thinking; my heart to greater loyalty; my hands to larger services; my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country and my world," is their pledge.
Under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 4-H is an informal educational program for boys and girls ages 8 to 18. There are nearly 100,000 4-H clubs nationwide, with anywhere from five to 50-plus members per group. Some clubs charge varying amounts of dues, others are free and may hold fundraisers when necessary.
Clubs meet at least once a month year-round and have a planned program. A club may specialize in a single subject, such as horses and ponies, or it may explore various educational topics. A typical high school 4-H member may be involved with an equine or other agricultural project, as well as public speaking, community service, or a health program.
"The Mission of 4-H is to empower youth to reach their full potential while working and learning in partnership with caring adults," says Allan Smith, Ph.D., National 4-H Program Leader with the USDA Extension Service in Washington, D.C.
The 4-H Horse and Pony Program
About 230,000 kids nationwide are involved with 4-H's horse and pony projects. In this program, young people learn about equine management and agriculture in general. "The program stresses sportsmanship, self-reliance, personal responsibility, good communication, and organizational skills," says Bob Mowrey, Ph.D., a professor of animal science at North Carolina State University and coordinator for North Carolina's state 4-H horse program.
The 4-H equine program offers a variety of activities, some of which are "horseless" projects for kids who do not have mounts, while other programs require members to own, lease or at least have access to a horse. Each fall, 4-H members select projects that they want to be involved with during the upcoming year. They receive a certificate for each project they complete.
Some of the "horseless" activities include: horse drawing, photography and painting contests; horse essay, short story and poetry writing contests; public speaking – in which members research horse topics and make 10-minute presentations; Horse Bowl – where teams of four compete with each other to answer questions about horses; and Horse Judging, where 4-H members test their ability to judge a horse's confirmation. For each of these contests, 4-H sponsors competitions on the county, state and national levels.
During the year, most clubs hold educational sessions to help members prepare for projects and contests. Karen Dietrich, organizational leader of the Chain-o-Lakes 4-H group in Antioch, Ill., regularly brings in equine veterinarians and horse trainers to discuss topics such as equine nutrition and health care, grooming, tack maintenance, helmet use and riding techniques. "Sometimes it will be a straight oral presentation, other times it will be a hands-on demonstration," she says.
Members with access to horses also can take part in 4-H horse shows, group trail rides, and horsemanship schools. "Our standard horse shows are offered on the county, district and state levels," Mowrey says. "In the South, we also have a regional 4-H Championship for all 13 southern states."
Kate Dollar, 15, president of the Mainland Equestrians 4-H Horse Club in Montgomery County, Pa., says what she really appreciates about 4-H horse shows is that they aren't "cut-throat. Our horse shows are low key and very supportive. Everyone seems to be proud of your accomplishments, and we never lack in cheering each other on."
Dietrich's club holds its main horse show at the annual county fair in July. One day is devoted to English riding; the other day to Western competition. During the show the focus is not on competing with other riders, she says, but on 4-H members improving their own horsemanship skills.
To help prepare members for the show, Dietrich's club conducts a weekly riding clinic before the event. "The members bring in their horses and we have experienced riders there who work with the children," Dietrich says.
The Benefits of 4-H
Kate Dollar joined 4-H five years ago to learn about horses, but she believes she has gotten much more out of the program. "I have built leadership and teaching skills that I will use the rest of my life, and I try to use my skills to reflect on all those I interact with," she says. "4-H has offered me knowledge, friends and opportunities that I wouldn't otherwise have had. It is the best thing that ever happened to me."
Jeffrey Tucker of Knoxville, Tenn., finished 4-H when he graduated from high school 6 years ago. Today he works as an account representative for a marketing firm and believes his public speaking experience in 4-H as a youngster helped pave the way for his success. "I make a lot of presentations on my job and I don't think I would have the confidence to do this if I hadn't done it in 4-H," Tucker says.
Jennifer Shoemaker, leader of the Clovers 4-H Club, says the members of her group see 4-H as a good way to relieve stress. "If they've had a bad week at school … they can come here to the farm and get their mind on something else. The kids see their horses as their friend. They can tell the horse their problems and the horse won't talk back and will give unconditional love."
But it's not just the members who appreciate 4-H.
Vickie Juhl, a parent-leader with Prairie Crossings 4-H Club in Grayslake, Ill., says: "It's a wholesome activity for kids. You don't have to worry about what your kids are doing or where they are," says Juhl whose daughters, Dana, 12, and Tracy, 9, are involved with 4-H. "It's a whole lot better than having them spend their weekends roaming the malls or hanging out at arcades."
Dietrich says she enjoys watching the children mature. "It's very rewarding to see a very timid child join the group, who may be afraid to stand up in front of everyone and introduce themselves the first night, and then 5 years later you see that same child and they're leading the group. You know that you've been instrumental in helping them get to that point…and that's a great feeling."