Shannon Rogers Simpson of Chilhowie, Va., heads the Smyth County 4-H Stirrups and Irons Club. She got involved when she first moved to Smyth County, and she’s never regretted it. It’s rewarding to watch the kids learn and become better horsemen and horsewomen, she says. Plus, she feels that her involvement has helped her business grow and has improved horse care throughout her county.
“I feel that if the educated horse people of this generation do not teach the kids, good horsemanship practices will never be learned,” she says. She brings in dentists, farriers, veterinarians and other equine professionals to teach the club members the best equine care, and her club competes in shows, including the state 4-H show.
Pony Club and 4-H leaders get involved for many reasons. Some were involved in Pony Club or 4-H as kids and want to give back to the programs they enjoyed. Others already have a group of kids at their barn and want to give them an outlet to show, compete in events that test their knowledge (such as Horse Quiz Bowl) or participate on horse judging teams. Some leaders see participation as a way to meet new horse people and grow their businesses.
Regardless of the reasons for getting involved, many 4-H and Pony Club leaders find that volunteering is good for business. Sarah Blanchard currently runs a 4-H program in Raleigh, N.C. She’s gained riding lesson clients because of her 4-H involvement. She discovered that parents of her students became better educated and more involved in their children’s riding activities as a result of the 4-H program. They then tell other parents about the benefits of riding and 4-H, and get more kids involved. She’s also been hired as a clinician and judge by people she’s met through 4-H.
Blanchard adds, “It’s one of the best ways to get your name out into the horse community, especially if you’re new to an area. Making your facility available for meetings, events, clinics or shows is all good for business.
“There are other benefits of working with a national, non-profit organization, too: inexpensive liability insurance for events, access to written and electronic resources for teaching, national and regional networking opportunities, grants and scholarships, discounts for club-related travel, plus support from community members who are happy to donate and support a well-recognized and highly regarded organization.”
Rogers Simpson says that while she’s gained clients after they’ve watched her riders perform at shows, that’s not the only way being a 4-H leader has helped her business. “When I have had an emergency at my farm, I have a close network of responsible, well-trained equestriennes who will drop everything and come help me.
“For instance, I am currently expecting a baby and am on bed rest. The girls pitch in and make sure they help get stalls cleaned, horses fed and watered or anything I need. In exchange, I come to their shows and coach them, help them choose appropriate clothes, tack, etc., and they come with me to mine and groom for me. One of my 4H-ers is learning to use the Parelli system and is assisting me in backing my four-year-olds. I benefit from them as much as or more than they do from me!”
Margie Juergensmeyer has worked with the Flint Hills Pony Club in Manhattan, Kan., and Gallatin Valley Pony Club in Bozeman, Mont. She didn’t expect volunteering with a Pony Club to benefit her business, but she found that she learned along with her students. “If you come out of a lesson and didn’t learn a single thing, chances are your students didn’t, either. You may or may not be learning about horses, but you definitely will learn people skills.” Those lessons made her a better riding instructor and improved how she interacted with clients, which gained her more clients in the long run.
For Rhonda Watts-Hettinger, who currently instructs the Groton Pony Club in Massachusetts and ran the New Hampshire 4-H Livestock Camp for more than 15 years, the most rewarding part of volunteering with 4-H and Pony Club is helping kids develop partnerships with their horses. She’s had riders who at first saw their mounts as only a means to ribbons, but came to value them as partners. She’s also seen some of her riders grow up to bring their own kids to Pony Club and 4-H, and some have become judges and 4-H leaders themselves.
Terri Hurley of Olmsted County 4-H in Minnesota agrees with Rhonda, but adds that she loves hearing older riders relay advice to the younger ones. It is especially rewarding when they remember lessons she’s taught and pass them on.
Rogers Simpson adds that coaches often become mentors to their riders. She loves being the person they turn to for advice on relationships, school, homework and more. She also enjoys seeing members of her club teach their friends how to care for their horses, and feels that the quality of care in the area around her has improved thanks to the lessons her riders have learned through 4-H.
BEFORE YOU GET INVOLVED
If you aren’t currently working with a 4-H or Pony Club group in your area but want to get involved, consider the following first.
• Do you have the time? Everyone who works with Pony Club and 4-H agrees, you have to make a commitment. During the summer when getting ready for big shows or rallies, you may spend 10 or more hours per week with your riders. Talk to the group and get a time estimate, and then plan on volunteering for a greater amount of time.
• What type of activities do you want to focus on? Some groups are geared toward smaller horse shows, while others focus on the big state
4-H show or Pony Club Rallies. Some groups emphasize pleasure and trail riding, while other groups focus on horse care and general horse knowledge. Some clubs have teams that compete in quiz bowls or judging teams. Discuss your goals with the organization to make sure your goals mesh with theirs.
• What kind of riding discipline do you prefer? If you are a hunter, getting involved in a group that’s predominantly western pleasure or into barrel races isn’t going to be much fun for you—or for the clubs’ members. Ditto if your focus is western pleasure—taking over a club that emphasizes dressage may be tough.
• Can your facility accommodate the club? Depending on what type of 4-H or Pony Club you lead, you may need an arena for riding lessons, clinics and shows, a classroom for seminars and talks, or stalls or pasture for boarding horses. If your facility cannot accommodate the club’s activities, do you know of one you can use?
• Meet the club members and their parents. If you’ll be taking over an existing group, go to a meeting or two. Talk to the kids and parents and make sure your goals for the club match theirs.
• Attend clinics and take riding lessons from different instructors. Observe their teaching style and figure out what works for you. Attend a teaching seminar and read books on teaching in general to help you improve your teaching style.
• Evaluate your reasons for getting involved. If it’s to help your business grow, fine, but it shouldn’t be the only reason. You really must have a desire to give back and help the next generation of horsemen and horsewomen grow—and enjoy teaching and mentoring children!
WHO TO CONTACT
To volunteer at an established 4-H group or Pony Club, look around and talk to local clubs to see what types of volunteers they need. If you would like to start a 4-H group or take over leadership of an established group, contact your local cooperative extension office. If that fails, contact the national 4-H headquarters at www.4-H.org. To lead or establish a Pony Club, contact the United States Pony Club at www.ponyclub.org or (859) 254-7669.
All of the 4-H and Pony Club leaders agree on one thing: get involved! The personal rewards are tremendous, and the opportunities to grow your business are a bonus.
From Margie Juergensmeyer: Don’t ask your students to do anything you wouldn’t do. They won’t trust or respect you if you do.
Always be honest. If your students know they can trust you to answer questions, they’ll come to you when they need help.
From Terri Huxley: Be patient with your riders as they learn the lessons you try to teach, and be patient with the program.
Respect the program. You may want to implement changes, but discuss proposed changes with the organization, your riders and their parents, and get their input.
From Sarah Blanchard: Don’t try to do it all yourself. Delegate work to parents, older club members and the community. Facilitate and guide everyone into working together.
From Lori Tankel, District Commission for Pony Club in her area: Learn to be diplomatic. Some parents will think their children should do far more than they’re really capable of, and it is your job to help the parents see what their children really can do.