NevAeh Baker tugged tightly on the rope that kept her horse Cookie by her side.
Her eyes intently focused on the judge from across a well-groomed riding pen on a Key Peninsula farm, NevAeh nervously waited for her turn to show off her project.
Asked how she felt, her eyes light up, she gently strokes her horse’s cinnamon-colored mane, and responds, “I’m excited.”
She was one of about 12 children from Port Orchard 4H clubs who travelled with friends and family in a motley caravan of cars, vans and trucks pulling horse trailers to a mud-packed farm in Longbranch for a horse show over the Easter weekend.
“A bunch of them are just brand new beginners and they were really really nervous about going to a horse show,” said Tina Meekins, proprietor of The Whole Horse Place in Port Orchard and a 4H activities coordinator. “There’s a lot to it, like the outfits, and exactly what do you do when you get there. Then you go to a really fancy horse show and you have the nerves on top of that with all the competition.
“So we decided to do our own horse show,” Meekins added.
Sitting on a forest green camp chair with a clipboard on her lap jotting notes of the students’ progress, she explained that “Rode to Success” is a dress rehearsal horse show. This, she said, will give the children, some barely into grammar school, an opportunity to experience the rigors of a real show.
“What it’s doing is preparing them for everything they will have to do,” she said.
Tucked a few yards in from the Key Peninsula Highway and a stone’s throw north of Evergreen Elementary School, Dana Pederson’s farm buzzed with activity. Trailers, trucks and vans sat on every open space of the 22-acre property.
An older student could be seen trotting her mare, her back ramrod straight, in a muddy circular pen. A rooster crows. The show is about to begin.
“Part of 4H is being proud of their project — showing it, standing it up, controlling it, knowing what it eats,” Pederson said.
So what are the judges looking for?
“We’re looking for confirmation, how you handle your horse, how your horse responds to you, your understanding of your horse,” the 57-year-old horse trainer explained, arms flailing about as she spoke.
Lauren Webb, the show judge for the day, said she was looking for good, safe rides from everyone. Webb said she will keep an eye on their form.
“For equitation, I am looking for the correct body positions,” she said.
Overall, Webb said, this is “to help the kids prepare for their show season coming up. So it is not so nerve wracking, and they can get a little confidence under their belt.”
Meekins, in explaining what it cost to join, said that one of the students who recently joined her 4H group had put up a note at one of the feed stores in Port Orchard offering to clean stalls in exchange for a horse.
“For her it cost nothing,” she said.
But if you have to buy a horse, feed it, and pay for all the tack and outfits, “it can get very expensive very quickly,” Meekins said.
This Port Orchard group helps keep costs down by having a clothing exchange. It is literally a big box full of gear and outfits that the children can dig through to find pieces they can use.
“4H though is the most affordable way to go if you want to do horse shows,” Meekins said.
In the end, it is truly about the children.
“Some kids are on their horse every day, and some kids board their horse and can only ride them about twice a week,” Meekins said. “But it’s not just about riding the horse. They have to spend a lot of time grooming, cleaning the stalls, everything that they could possibly do around the horse — giving it medicine, doctoring its owies.”
Then there are the memories.
“This looks about like what I remember when I was in 4H,” said Callie Travis, grandmother to one of the students and horse show veteran. “I remember horses that weren’t as cooperative and other horses that were, and all the fun that was had.”
Travis then told a story of her and her horse Collie:
“When we did the trials, they said ‘walk’ and we did exceptionally well.
“We were good,” Travis said with a mischievous grin.
“And when they said ‘trot’, we walked. And when they said ‘gallop’, we walked. And then she decided we weren’t going to walk anymore, so she stopped completely.
“Fun memories,” roared the grandmother with short cropped silver hair.
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