AMES, Iowa--Lindsey Wright, a young 4-H'er from Prairie City, recently got a big surprise for her birthday. She, like many other young people, wanted to be around horses and care for horses, not to mention experience the pure joy of riding. Yet, keeping a horse can be a pricey undertaking and she did not have the opportunity to ride, let alone own a horse.
The 4-H Youth Development program of Iowa State University Extension has filled this void with a Horseless Horse project, which began in Virginia 4-H some 30 years ago. In Horseless Horse, youth learn about breeds, markings, coat colors and gaits. They also learn about needs of a horse including health, nutrition and grooming. In addition, they study equipment, horsemanship, safety and potential careers. Ideally, programs offer contact with horses and encourage members to attend a horse show or sale. Through the project, youth develop sportsmanship, responsibility, cooperation and decision-making and public speaking skills.
Reaching Urban Youth
Nationally, Horseless Horse is in 45 states, making it possible for more youth to have contact with horses, even urban youth who make up more than half of the national 4-H enrollment. The project continues to grow in Iowa as the 4-H program moves into urban areas where approximately 55 percent of Iowans live.
Iowa’s horse population is 17th in the nation, numbering nearly 200,000 of the estimated 9.2 million horses in the United States, according to the American Horse Council. Some 145,000 Iowans contribute to the equine industry as owners, service providers, employees and volunteers.
Project Guide Available
ISU Extension offers a 102-page Horseless Horse project guide, which many Iowa horse club leaders use, including Vicki Wade, co-leader of Jasper County Equine Experience. Wade’s group brings together all horse club members from the county for education and practice. Members are encouraged to participate in such educational events as 4-H horse quiz bowl, hippology and horse judging.
“I use the Horseless Horse project guide during our winter sessions. It’s a great resource for quizzes, diagrams and illustrations. I love working with the kids to watch them develop as informed, caring horse people. It’s a commitment, but so worth the time,” Wade said.
Another resource for central Iowa Horseless Horse 4-H’ers is Healing Hearts with Horses and Horse Heaven Rescue, a horse rescue and nonprofit intervention program run by Deb and Randy Hoyt of Runnels. The program provides hands on learning about horses and beginning-to-ride lessons.
“We are focused on clients learning to love and respect animals, and learning to care for them,” said Deb, a certified horse professional and accredited instructor. “We use 4-H books for our program because they are awesome.”
The Hoyts offer indoor and outdoor arenas on their 25-acre farm where they rehabilitate and retrain the rescued horses. They currently care for 25 horses, which they sell, adopt or use for their programs. Their service has attracted people from the area, including residents of Baxter, Carlyle, Grinnell, Johnston, Urbandale and Waukee.
Back to Lindsey
Now back to Lindsey, one of the young people who volunteer at Healing Hearts. Wright is an eighth grader who benefits from both the Hoyts’ program and Wade’s Equine Experience. She was the only horseless member in the Lucky L’s 4-H Club, but now earns riding privileges by caring for horses at the equine facility. Not only has she learned to ride, but also she can train others to ride and recently won top honors in a 4-H horse quiz bowl.
And what of Lindsey's birthday suprise? On her special day her favorite horse Felicity was led in wearing a big "Happy Birthday" sign. Deb had made an arrangement with the Wright family wherein they would pay for Felicity's keep at the facility and Lindsey would own the horse.
For Love of the Horses
Another Prairie City youth, Kendra VanderLeest, also comes to Wade’s Equine Experience meetings. A ninth-grader and member of the Prairie City Champs, she learned to ride the summer after fifth grade, when she went to a horse camp for a week. “I loved caring for the horses,” she said. “I watched the older girls who were teachers as they showed the younger girls how to bridle and saddle a horse, lead a horse, mount and ride.”
VanderLeest loved it so much, in fact, that she talked the owner into letting her work for the rest of the summer as a helper with riding privileges. “I probably didn’t earn $20 for the whole summer, but I didn’t do it for the money, I did it for love of the horses.” This year she has been able to lease two horses from Jeff and Laurie Pierce, who transport the horses to weekly practice sessions at the Jasper County Fairgrounds in Colfax.
Even for those who live on a farm, “it’s best to be horseless the first year in the project, to see whether your 4-H’er really wants to ride and care for an animal,” Lisa Broderick, a 4-H mom from Jasper County, said. The Brodericks leased a horse for daughter Alex the first year. “He wasn’t a show horse, but it’s not about show; it’s about learning horse safety.”
'Where There's a Will, There's a Way'
Within the Horseless Horse project, the old saw rings true, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Many 4-H leaders at the county level find ways to pull together a group of people who are willing to donate, lease and transport horses so that youth have an opportunity to be around live animals, get acquainted with them and learn to ride. Contact your local county extension office to see if there are ways you can become involved.