For the love of horses: Local girls learn about competition and community through the 4-H horse program |

For the love of horses: Local girls learn about competition and community through the 4-H horse program

SUMMIT COUNTY – Thirteen-year-old Megan Hollenbeck loves horses so much she spent several years cleaning out horse stalls just to be near the animals. Now she has her own horse, Jester, and rides him every day. On Sunday, she competed in her first gymkhana – games on horseback.

Hollenbeck was among a number of girls, ages 9 to 18, from various local 4-H horse clubs that gathered at the county fairgrounds Sunday to compete in the local summer gymkhana series. It’s the fifth year for the event, but the first that local 4-H group Rough Riders of the Rockies has hosted it alone, said Nancy Wanamaker, 4-H group leader. The series provides 4-H members with an opportunity to practice their riding skills, but it is also a fundraiser for the hosting 4-H group.

During the all-day event, riders compete in races such as keyhole, flag, barrel, pole and speed barrel. Each race involves a different pattern. In keyhole, for example, riders must race their horses into and out of a keyhole drawn on the ground. It’s a 4-foot opening with a 20-foot circle in which they must turn their horses around before exiting – all without the horses stepping on the line.

“The horses look at that white chalk line and they say “Aaahhh, snake!” Wanamaker said.

Competitors are judged for speed and accuracy.

“These girls like to go fast,” Wanamaker said. “Speed is their thing. They have a need for speed.”

Once school is out, most of the girls practice their riding skills all day, every day, in preparation for competitions such as the summer gymkhana series and the Mountain Community Fair.

Sunday was the first time Hollenbeck had competed on horseback. She was nervous before her first event but regained her calm as soon as she started riding, she said. Hollenbeck doesn’t think she’ll be nervous about competition again.

Her friends, Tiana Shelton and Abby Neyland, warned Hollenbeck that the pre-competition anxiety doesn’t go away. Like Hollenbeck, Shelton and Neyland are 4-H horse club members. But they’ve been riding and competing for several years. Shelton and Neyland still get the pre-competition jitters, they said, but they have learned how to put a cap on those anxieties. Rather than lose sleep to nerves, the two girls often host sleepovers the night before an event to help keep their minds off the upcoming competition.

“The more you think about it, the more nervous you get,” Shelton said.

Competition is only part of the reason these girls participate in the local 4-H horse program.

“One, I love horses and I just love to ride,” Shelton said. “And because I want to be in the stock shows someday.”

In the 4-H horse clubs, participants learn how to ride and care for horses. It’s also a social venue where members visit with friends and meet new people.

“I love being in 4-H because it’s with all my friends,” Neyland said. “We learn a lot and we get to ride. (But) in 4-H we don’t just learn how to ride, we learn how to help our community.”

Members of all 4-H clubs, not just horse clubs, work all year in preparation for the Mountain Community Fair, which will be July 10 -13. Before they can participate or compete in the annual event, however, members are required to invest at least five hours in community service. This year, Neyland and Shelton’s club held a fundraiser for their classmate Armando Tovar, who is battling bone cancer.

Fundraising helps 4-H members improve their social and budgeting skills, Wanamaker said.

“They have to be brave and talk to people they normally wouldn’t,” she said, adding – once they’ve raised the money – the girls must determine how to spend it.

Wanamaker’s daughters, Kristin, 18, and Annie, 17, have been members of 4-H clubs for at least 10 years, she said. In that time, they’ve grown into mature, capable young adults and Wanamaker credits much of that to their time with 4-H. The local club has increased Kristin and Annie’s confidence as they developed and refined their social and competition skills.

“They’ve really grown into nice people to be around,” Wanamaker said.

The summer gymkhana series will continue the competition on Aug. 9 and Aug. 30. For more information about the series, contact Nancy Wanamaker at (970) 468-8838. For information on other 4-H clubs, contact Kathie Kralik at (970) 668-4142.

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