Dr. Amy McLean, Extension equine husbandry specialist in N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, took a 4-H horse judging team to Oklahoma this summer and brought back world champions.
The 4-H’ers, mainly high-school juniors and seniors, won a World Championship at the American Quarter Horse Youth Association World Show in Oklahoma City, Okla. The North Carolina delegation also scored wins in the Team Demo and Horse Bowl competitions at the August event. And in the week prior to the AQHYA World Contests, several of the 4-H’ers participated at the Southern Regional 4-H Horse Championships in Monroe, La., where they also excelled, said McLean, the team’s coach.
4-H is the youth education program of Cooperative Extension.
To win the World Championships, the 4-H’ers had to demonstrate outstanding knowledge in judging American Quarter Horses in several disciplines and in conformation. “The students judged both performance and halter classes,” McLean said.
Performance classes are based on how well the horse and rider combination fulfill the requirements of the class. “Some of the classes may have precise maneuvers or obstacles they must complete or maneuver through, or the class may require the horse to perform various gaits when asked. The class is based solely off the movement and consistency of the horse,” McLean explained. “Other classes may focus on the horse and rider performing a pattern to perfection. The students must learn how to score these classes and recognize quality maneuvers, as well as penalties when they are incurred.”
The 4-H team members were also required to judge four halter classes. In the American Quarter Horse breed, some horses are bred strictly for halter, McLean said. “This class requires the horse to be made a certain way according to breed standards. Two of the most important things the students learn to look for are balance and structural correctness.”
Balance refers to how the horse divides evenly into thirds when viewed from the side, she said, noting that the three sections should be even in length and that the angle of the shoulder and hip should correspond, “so the students learn a great deal about anatomy and physiology of the horse when judging halter.”
Likewise, to judge structural correctness, the students had to be able to evaluate the skeletal system of the horse and how the bones align with one another.
“Ideally, the students want to choose horses that are balanced and structurally correct, qualities which correlate to the longevity of the horses’ show careers and lives,” McLean said.
Finally, the students were required to analyze various classes and then, in two minutes or less, prepare a statement called “oral reasons,” wherein they described everything they saw in the class, while defending their overall placement of the horses.
All world champions won World Champion belt buckles from AQHYA.
In the Horse Bowl, competitors answered questions about the history of the American Quarter Horse, as well as demonstrating their knowledge of current rules and regulations. The N.C. 4-H team was also represented in the extemporaneous speech contest. Meanwhile, the group’s Team Demo was presented by two young women who spoke on alternative therapies for horses, McLean said. “Their talk focused on using chiropractic and acupuncture therapy on horses to enhance their performance and overall well-being.”
To make it to this level of competition, 4-H’ers must first qualify for the team. “The top 10 individuals from the State 4-H Horse judging competition are invited to compete on a composite team,” McLean said.
The team begins practicing at the end of April or beginning of May, and members are selected based on their performance throughout weekly practices, both live and online (online practices are held via Blackboard Collaborate), and based on their performance at the mid-summer Southern Regional 4-H Horse Competition. Then the top four are chosen to compete on the national team.
Once the team is chosen, it begins a busy competition season: Fall competitions include the All-American Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, Ohio, and the Eastern National 4-H Horse Round-up in Louisville, Ky., continuing through the next year at other competitions, such as the American Paint Horse Association Youth Judging Contest in Fort Worth, Texas, before finishing the year out with competing at the American Quarter Horse Youth Association World Show in Oklahoma.
At this year’s Southern Regionals, McLean’s 4-H team excelled in educational contests, including horse judging, horse bowl, hippology, individual presentation, team presentation and public speaking. “We also had 4-H’ers participating in the show in the Western, Huntseat, Saddleseat and Nontrotting divisions,” she said. “These individuals hauled their horses and ponies all the way from North Carolina to Louisiana to compete in the show. They did very well! “
McLean is assisted by volunteer coach Mary Hunt and by equine technicians Jessica Hicks, who helps coach the horse bowl and hippology teams, and Robin Lynn, who assists with the horse judging teams and coaches the NCSU Western Equestrian Team.
She also attributes the success of the 4-H Equine Program in North Carolina to its “extremely dedicated and passionate volunteer leaders.”
She said that the leaders do such an amazing job working with the youth on the county and district levels that, when the 4-H’ers make it to a national team, her job as coach and that of her staff are made easier — a matter of basically supporting the strong foundation and just finessing or polishing some of the volunteers’ well-taught techniques.
“The strong volunteer support group in North Carolina is a great advantage our program has over other programs throughout the country,” said McLean. “These leaders are not only passionate about working with young people with equine interests but very talented in doing so.”
As for the coach, she already has her sights set on next year. Said McLean,“I’m so very excited to start the fall with a new team.” – Terri Leith