4-H youth learn trust, discipline from equine friends

GROOMING: Alicia Weeks, 15, of Stanwood, bathes her horse to prepare for her class on Wednesday at the Mecosta County Agricultural Free Fair.

BIG RAPIDS — Even at the end of a long day at school or an especially grueling homework session, 4-H equestrians are still eager to head to the stables, where they say they learn lessons in patience, trust and discipline.

“My horse trusts me enough that, if I asked him to walk up Mount Everest, he’d do it. He knows that I won’t put him in a position where I’d hurt him,” said Big Rapids resident Allison Nelson. “If you go too fast and your horse blows up, it’s going to take you 100 times longer to get their trust back.”

FRIENDSHIP: Amy Bouwkamp, 16, nuzzles the nose of 14-year-old Emma Langerak’s horse as they wait for Emma’s next class on Wednesday at the Mecosta County Agricultural Free Fair. (Pioneer photos/Whitney Gronski-Buffa)

At 16 years old, Nelson estimates she’s been riding for about 15 years. She has been involved in 4-H for about as long, she said, and has shown sheep and rabbits along with horses during past fair weeks. This year, she decided to focus solely on her horses, and it has paid off.

This week, Nelson won Grand Champion for her individual demonstration of doctoring cattle with horses, Reserve Champion for a roping obstacle course and Reserve Champion for a team demonstration of freestyle reigning with her friend, Jorja Potter.

Coming to the fair week as just an equestrian has helped her focus all her energy on making a meaningful connection with her horse, Baxter.

“It takes a lot of bonding and trust and all that to make your horse (perform),” Nelson said. “A lot of owners will freak out and get mad and rush things, and their horses eventually become sour. … To me, the most important thing is giving them credit and getting them to trust you when they do what you ask.”

Like Nelson did in the past, most Mecosta County 4-Hers show multiple animals during fair week. However, many 4-H equestrians are committed to showing only their horses and don’t bring other animals to the fair.

“I don’t know why I never did other animals,” said 19-year-old Tara Wernette. “I’m just really into horses.”

Part of the appeal, she said, is in their calming nature. Wernette, now in her last year of 4-H, is a sophomore at Ferris State University studying radiography. Going to the barn to relieve stress has kept her committed to her horse, Tequilla, despite her demanding class schedule.

STEP UP: Daryle GreenBay Jr., an 8-year-old Big Rapids resident, asks his horse to walk over a bridge obstacle during a trail class on Wednesday. Trail class simulates the trail riding experience with obstacles like the bridge, logs and gates that must be opened by the rider.

“I feel like I have a relationship with my horse,” Wernette said. “Whenever I’m stressed, I just ride and it gets rid of all my worries. It makes everything go away. It’s relaxing.”

Daryle GreenBay Jr., an 8-year-old Big Rapids resident, has been riding for three years and said he enjoys the challenge of acquiring new skills. This year, he rode in a trail class, which simulates a trail riding experience in an arena with obstacles, such as logs, a bridge and a gate that has to be opened and shut by the rider from their horse’s back.

“I just like riding,” he said. “Next year, I’ll be old enough to do speed and English.”

Daryle’s mother, Karen GreenBay, said his horse-riding hobby inspired her to take up the sport as well. She not only rides with Daryle, she sews his competition shirts. She appreciates the discipline Daryle learns from riding and caring for horses.

“He gets some structure and they learn directions, especially with the trail patterns,” she said. “At this point in the season, he’s pretty tired. … But he can stay in it as long as he wants to. I might even be out there next year, showing in the open show.”

Visit the photo gallery for more photos of 4-H equestrians with their equine friends.

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Posted by Whitney Gronski-Buffa

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