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Published June 21, 2019
For two days in Thermopolis this month, a fifth “H” was added to the 4-H’s of head, heart, hands and health.
Young Kayden Light spoke softly to her horse, Julie, too quietly for an interloper to hear the words, in the wood stall at the beginning of the second day of 4-H Horse Camp at the Hot Springs County Fairgrounds.
Light’s baseball cap just fit under the crook between Julie’s head and neck. Light, standing to Julie’s left, reached high and slipped one half of the halter over Julie’s right ear, then the left ear as Julie slightly cocked her head to the right -- was she helping? -- giving Light easier access to fasten the halter. Light opened the stall gate, and the two classmates stepped out for the second day of schooling.
Near the end of the day before, longtime 4-H horse club leader and instructor Stuart Thompson, of Sublette County, described why training horses and humans is different from humans training dogs: Humans ride horses, and a human’s brain is communicating with a horse’s brain.
“This is the only sport where we have two brains that need to get coordinated to get the result we like,” he says. “And this is the beginning of that for these kids. The first thing we try to get across is the partnership between the horse and human brain.”
There is no quick path.
“We are accustomed to instant gratification,” Thompson muses, citing the world of smartphones and video games. “Horses are not instant gratification. It’s time, and time on task, time in saddle, and it’s learning that never stops and developing that partnership.”
One more thing.
“Their relationship with their horses teaches the 4-H’ers their belly button is not the center of the universe,” he says. “The horse is. They have to learn to feed and water the horse, take care of them before they feed and water themselves. There is another life they are responsible for.”
More than 55 4-H’ers and their horses took part in the two days of the camp.
Divided by age, 4-H’ers are then split into groups depending upon their ability levels, to start the camp, says Amanda Kauffman, of Buffalo. She’s retired from ranching, but she’s attended the annual horse camp for most of 40 years, starting about the time when Americans were taken hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran and the launch of ESPN.
She allows that she may have missed a couple of camps -- but not many.
“I really like working with the kids,” she says. “I’ve ridden all my life. It just gives me a thrill to share what I know with them. Horse camp is such a fun thing for the kids.”
They are laughing, smiling, riding and happy.
“They are learning things they didn’t think they could,” says Kauffman, who leads a program for horse project 4-H’ers in Johnson County. There are up to 30 4-H’ers in it. “For example, many of these kids have never loped before.”
Loping is awkward, because the body is in an insecure position on a horse, she explains. “But they probably will lope before they go home. And you’re just like cheering. You see the improvement. It’s just exciting for them.”
University of Wyoming Extension equine specialist Jenny Ingwerson, along with volunteer instructors and helpers in the arena, showed 4-H’ers how to maneuver their horses and then had the 4-H’ers do it. The sun had dried the arena dirt, and dust sometimes obscured the riders as they came up to speed in the arena.
“We are so lucky to have Jenny,” Kauffman says. “She is a superior teacher, and she’s trying to build an equine program at UW. That would be nice. There is a big demand for it, and it’s a huge industry. Everybody seems to have a backyard horse, and then some.”
Ingwerson joined the UW Department of Animal Science in 2014, and this was her fifth camp. Her approach has been to draw upon her own childhood and horses.
“I didn’t get to start with a nice, quiet horse,” says Ingwerson, who grew up in Plattsmouth, Neb. She participated in 4-H, open and quarter horse shows. “So when I see kids who have challenges with horses, I know exactly what they are going through.”
She even had trouble getting the bridles on because she was so little, and her horses were young and not always willing.
“A young rider on a young, inexperienced horse is rarely a good combination,” Ingwerson says. “The horse and I were always learning together. I never had a horse I could learn from, and that’s a challenge.”
Safety is always the first priority, she says. That enables the 4-H’ers to advance to other levels.
They have more fun if they learn how to work with horses and become safer, says UW Extension Educator Scott Cotton, one of the instructors.
“If these kids go through step by step on how to work with horses and become safer, they have more fun,” he says. “And when they come to other events, like horse shows and fairs, they’re the ones in the arena who are not a problem for anybody. On top of that, the horses are reading them and listening to them.”
This was the first year the event was not at the state fairgrounds in Douglas. There are two one-day camps this July -- in Sundance and the other in Cheyenne, but this is the only two-day horse camp.
“The kids walk away better than when they came in,” Ingwerson says. “They learn something new, and they advance their riding skills. The other thing is they have fun. You don’t learn if you don’t have fun, and you don’t have fun if you don’t learn.”