Beyond The Show Pen

Learn how youth can develop valuable life skills, become more self-confident, and gain educational opportunities by getting involved in the horse industry.

Horse-crazy kids and parents alike know the challenges, rewards, and opportunities that a youth rider can experience in the show pen. Showing horses teaches young people how to work hard, develop discipline and sportsmanship, perform under pressure, and a host of other important life skills. But riding and showing horses isn’t everything. In fact, there’s a wealth of educational experiences, skill-building opportunities, and other benefits available in the horse industry for youth who venture beyond competitions. Many of these opportunities can open doors for youth to gain scholarships and internships, and may even lead them into lifelong careers in the horse industry—all because they took the time to invest in more than winning ribbons.

For Christine Gillett of Richland Hills, Texas, who enjoyed showing horses as a youth, investing in life outside the show pen led her to develop a successful career in event planning. Today, she is the public events coordinator for the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas. Before that, she worked for the American Paint Horse Association as director of APHA events and youth activities. Gillett says that many of the skills she developed by working in the industry started with finding her own voice.

LEFT: As a college student, Christine Gillett learned how to plan and manage horse shows for her collegiate equestrian team and discovered a passion for event planning. In 2016, while serving as the director of youth and amateur activities and awards for APHA, she planned the AjPHA Youth World Games in Kreuth, Germany. RIGHT: Maddie Ashburn and her partner, Brandon Bass, competed in the 2018 Southern Regional 4-H Horse Championships Team Demonstration Contest. Their demonstration was all about how to administer injections to horses. Left photo Courtesy of Christine Gillett; right photo Courtesy of Maddie Ashburn

“When a kid finds their voice in the horse industry, that voice is going to be heard somewhere else, too,” Gillett said. “It’s important for kids to develop that voice in a safe space where they’re comfortable, like talking about horses or how they want to improve their breed’s organization, and then they’re going to go on and use that voice in their classroom or in their first job or as they go through life.”

If you’re a youth, or the parent of a youth, who’s interested in getting involved in the horse industry, there are plenty of places to start, from volunteering with local horse groups to helping out in the show office to participating in horse organizations, and much more. But it’s important to realize that no matter which way you decide to go, your success is based on the amount of effort you decide to put in. If you’re a horse-show kid, you already know that careful preparation, hard work, and commitment are three of the keys to success in the show pen. They’re also the keys to success in life and work—so whatever you decide to do, do it wholeheartedly, and you’ll already be well on your way to finding your voice and your place in the horse industry.

Ready to learn more about how to succeed beyond the show pen? The next time you’re faced with an opportunity, try these tips for success—and you’ll be amazed at the doors that start opening for you! 


Just like in school, there are going to be experiences in the horse industry that aren’t for you—and that’s OK, as long as you try everything at least once. You don’t know if something’s not for you until you try it, and if you never try, you’ll never know what you might be missing. According to Helen Hardy, manager of youth development at the American Quarter Horse Youth Association, accepting opportunities is one of the keys to finding your passion in life.

“My advice to youth, to my peers and colleagues, and to anyone who will listen is to say yes to anything and everything,” Hardy said. “It’s so important to say yes to every opportunity that anybody is willing to offer you. Say yes to any conversation that anyone is willing to have with you. Say yes to meeting people and say yes to getting introductions to people because those things might come back around in ways that you’ll never expect. I’m at a point in my career and in my life where I’m seeing many of those ‘yeses’ come full circle.”

Especially for young people who are still learning, there may be opportunities that mean learning on the job. Those can be some of the most valuable opportunities you’ll ever accept because you never know what skills and abilities you may pick up, but they can also be intimidating. It’s perfectly natural to feel nervous when you’re trying something for the first time, just like the first time you started showing at a new level, but don’t let it stop you from learning.

“I decided in college that I wanted to try scribing for horse show judges,” Gillett said. “I didn’t know anything about scribing. Someone I knew offered to teach me, and so I learned, and then I went to my first show and I did it. I was totally terrified, but people will give you the corrections you need to help you get in the lane you need to be in. Sometimes those butterflies in my stomach would make me be a little slower to reach for a goal, but sometimes it was the push I needed.”

QUICK START TIP: If you want to get involved in helping behind-the-scenes at your next horse show, volunteer to work the gate, run errands for the show office, shadow the show secretary, scribe for the judges, or serve as a runner for the announcer. You never know what you’ll learn or who you’ll meet and that’s half the fun!


Getting involved in an organization is one of the easiest ways to get connected with the horse community, no matter your age. Many breed organizations also have youth-centered organizations, such as AQHYA, the American Junior Paint Horse Association, the Pony of the Americas Club, and others. For non-breed specific organizations, consider joining your local United States Pony Club affiliate or your local 4-H horse program. In addition to making friends with people your own age and networking with equine professionals serving in leadership positions, joining an equine organization can teach you about many different aspects of the industry. You’ll also develop tons of skills that you can carry with you into college or the job market.

TOP: The AQHA Ranching Heritage Young Horse Development Program showcases the stock being bred and raised by AQHA ranching heritage breeders by matching donated weanlings with AQHYA members. Youth in this program are engaged in the horse industry at a fundamental level that is both fun and educational. BOTTOM: The Bank of America Youth Excellence Seminar welcomes AQHYA members and non-members, ages 10 to 18, to experience this face-to-face event that offers valuable leadership skills, inspiring speakers, and workshops. Courtesy of AQHA

For example, many 4-H horse programs offer non-riding horse activities such as horse bowl and hippology, horse judging and horse speech, and demonstration contests. While participating in these contests can help you beef up your knowledge base about all things equine, there are other benefits—such as learning how to work with a team, how to prepare and deliver information to others, and more, says Jennie Ivey, Ph.D., assistant professor and extension equine specialist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“It’s really rewarding to me to see students take advantage of all the opportunities, study and have fun learning with their friends and getting ready for these educational contests,” Ivey said. “For many kids, participating in these contests means they’re better prepared by the end of high school to contribute to the industry in a meaningful way.”

Maddie Ashburn of Whitwell, Tennessee, is a freshman at the University of Tennessee on the pre-veterinary track. She’s a lifelong 4-H member who participated in the 4-H horse judging, hippology, horse bowl, and horse speech and communication contests.

“Learning how to give reasons for horse judging taught me how to communicate better,” Ashburn said. “In all of the contests, being a member of a team taught me how to work together with everyone’s different strengths and weaknesses.”

Ashburn’s participation in her local 4-H program also helped her earn scholarships for college and connected her with Ivey. Although she’s only a freshman, Ashburn is already participating in equine research projects in college because of the skills she developed participating in 4-H.

Joining 4-H at a young age led to a whole lifetime of opportunities for Justin Crowe, director and 4-H state program leader for Tennessee 4-H.

“I tell kids to stick with it because there are so many opportunities through 4-H,” Crowe said. “I’ve taken 4-H’ers all over the world. There are so many opportunities to learn and grow. I owe pretty much everything I have in life to 4-H. I met my wife through it and got to go to college because of it. Anyone can excel in it.”

Joining a breed organization, like AQHYA, can also open tons of doors for youth. AQHYA hosts a youth conference every year, provides leadership opportunities for kids to campaign and run for office, and offers a host of e-learning opportunities. AQHYA members are also eligible for scholarship opportunities through the American Quarter Horse Foundation.

The American Quarter Horse Foundation awarded the first youth activities scholarship at the 2020 Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show. Through this scholarship and many others, the Foundation is committed to helping the dreams of our youth come true by making higher education more affordable and accessible through scholarships. Courtesy of AQHA

“The American Quarter Horse Foundation has a really long legacy of supporting youth,” said Katie Reynolds, director of youth development and AQHYA. “They’ve given more than $7.6 million in scholarships to youth to date. There are so many scholarship opportunities for kids through the Foundation, and all they have to do is fill out a single application and submit it online every December. And then through AQHA, we offer a number of scholarships and awards through our different educational contests for high achieving youth.”

QUICK START TIP: Depending on your age and interests, find a local horse  organization or contact a local affiliate and research what non-riding activities they offer in your area. Evaluate your own knowledge base to figure out where your knowledge gaps are and then set out on a mission to fill them!


A huge part of getting involved in the horse industry means meeting people. While the idea of “networking” might seem scary, think about the last time you went to a horse show and noticed there were new people in your class. In the presence of horses and amid all the excitement of show day, it was probably easy for you to go introduce yourself and make new friends. Channel that energy the next time you’re in a strange place or volunteering with a new organization.

“In the horse industry, horses are a commonality among us. But ultimately, this is a business built on people,” Reynolds said. “The connections you make with people in this industry are critical.”

When Helen Hardy was in college, she made a point of volunteering as often as possible and meeting people—a habit that she credits with the wide network of contacts she still has today in her job at AQHA.

“When I was in school, I said yes to all my professors and instructors whenever they had an opportunity for me,” Hardy said. “These days, I’m meeting people in the industry, working with them, and hosting horse judging contests. When I call trainers and people, they often say, ‘I remember you from this one event or this one show.’ Because I always said yes, that helped me make connections, become involved, and become a more well-rounded part of the industry. I love to show and ride for fun, but that’s far from what I do professionally. If you want to work in the industry, I think it’s important to make connections, go outside your comfort zone, and meet new people.”

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