Getting Started in 4-H

How to combine the 4-H lessons of head, heart, hands, and health with horsemanship.
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When my daughter enrolled in 4-H this year, I expected it to give her a chance to make friends, learn about her horse, and ride. All good things. What I discovered, though, was that she gained so much more. In fact, she gained an education in ships: horsemanship, leadership, citizenship, and friendship.

[READ: Why Kids Should Ride]

The 4 "Hs" in the logo stand for "Head, Heart, Hands, and Health."

The 4 "Hs" in the logo stand for "Head, Heart, Hands, and Health."

As a parent, I saw 4-H through a different lens than I did as a child, when it was just fun. After watching my own daughter work on her record books, give presentations, and prep for fair, I found myself taking a "what I wish I knew then that I know now" look at 4-H. I talked to several experts—from former 4-H members to leaders and staffers—about what first-time 4-Hers (and their parents) should know before they embark on a horse project. If you know of someone about to set sail in 4-H, or are a youth who'd like to get involved, consider this advice for what to expect and how to get started.

1. Find a club. You may already be aware of a club in your area, but it's worth contacting your county extension office to find the right club. Donna Patterson, a former 4-Her and an extension educator in Oklahoma for 4-H youth development, says, "When we have someone new, I start by asking about interests, and what brought him or her to 4-H." She'll match their interests and goals with a club in the area. And don't be afraid to switch clubs, she says. "If you go to a club, and you're not clicking with that club, try a different one," she says.

2. Every club has its own personality. Patterson explains that state opportunities, rules, and focuses will vary somewhat, and that counties and clubs will have their own unique interests.

"Some counties are interested in playdays and speed events. Some counties have ranches and kids showing interest in cowboy camp and ranch horse classes. And some counties have a big interest in showing," she says. While the curriculum and standards are the same, how each county approaches the curriculum might be a little different.

Young girl standing next to a paint horse.

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3. Specialize or generalize? Some clubs are specifically horse-focused, while others are more general, with members whose projects might range from cake decorating and poultry to horses and leather craft. Patterson points out that in Oklahoma, you can join more than one club, so you may want to check with your extension office about rules governing club membership in your state. If you're in a horse-specific club, you may have more field trips or events geared to horses.

On the other side of the coin, general clubs offer a broader 4-H experience. Tass Heim of Ada County, Idaho, began her 4-H work in 1974, bringing a wealth of equine experience with her. And, while she leads the horse projects within her club, she feels a general club offers unique benefits.

"We meet once each month as a whole club. Then the horse project is separate," she says. That means that while there are opportunities for horse project kids to ride together and have horse-specific meetings, they also benefit from other projects and experiences in 4-H as a whole.

4. Attend a meeting. Some clubs welcome visitors to sit in on a meeting to get a sense of what the club is like. Check with the club's leader about when new members are welcomed and when a new year is kicked off. Some clubs start their new year in October, others in early winter, and others right after fair or at other times in the year.

5. Do a little research before you register. Kids may be asked to choose their projects for the year when they register. Check your county's 4-H Web site for information on various projects, and talk to the leader about deadlines for choosing projects.

[READ: Organizations for Youth & Horses]

6. Get the lay of the land. Once you've settled on a club, talk to the leader or other parents to get a broad view of the club's calendar, requirements, and activities. Knowing what's on the schedule will not only help you decide if it's a good fit for you, but also can help you feel a little less like you're walking into a dark room.

"We ride once or twice a month through November," says Heim. "Then we take the bad winter months off, and during those times we do things like field trips, horse bowls, and preparation for oral presentations."

Patterson points out that knowing what to expect during meetings can help kids prepare. "Sometimes people think we just meet and ride. Our club also has regular business meetings, where we talk about community service events, club fundraisers, and events. The kids get to vote and elect officers," says Patterson.

7. Set goals. 4-H requires kids to set goals for their projects. Dr. Dave Freeman of Oklahoma State university and an equine specialist for Oklahoma 4-H says that setting goals can help kids plan for the year.

"Know what skills you want to develop, and identify what opportunities exist for developing those skills. Competitive events make the horse project a great experience for youth, socially integrating them with other youth of similar interests at a fun event. Likely the hardest item for inexperienced youth is gaining the skills needed to compete successfully before attending the events. Take time to understand what these events are developed to promote, so your efforts of practice and development of skills have a clear objective before participating or competing," says Freeman.

Heim also points out the importance of communicating goals and expectations with your 4-H leader.

"Have a road map of what you want to do, and then communicate that," she says. "We focus on good horsemanship so you'll be prepared to go in whatever direction you want to go." If Heim knows a child is interested in trail riding, shows, gymkhana, or just riding with friends, then she can help that child meet goals by targeting those interests.

[READ: Goals for Any Rider]

8. Explore your opportunities. "Most kids are drawn to the horse project because of the possibilities of group horsemanship activities and events," says Freeman. "But those activities are just one component of 4-H horse projects. For 4-H to be of value, explore all facets of the project, such as judging and oral communication opportunities. And don't restrict yourself to horse only activities, some of the best leadership development opportunities in 4-H will be found outside of the project only activities."

Depending on what your state offers, you may choose from knowledge competitions like horse bowl, horse judging, and hippology; verbal presentations; or other projects. You may decide to do a veterinary medicine project that focuses on an equine disease. If you don't own a horse, there are "horseless horse projects," or you can lease a horse for your project.

Girl wearing a helmet unsaddling a horse.

Laura Dunlavy, now a student at South Dakota State university, grew up as a 4-Her in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota. She says she participated in horse bowl, hippology, horse judging, and the regular 4-H project, as well as the horse training project. When Dunlavy was 14, she started her homebred Appaloosa filly, Sweet Bell Pepper, and followed the project's steps each year to take "Bell" from halter breaking to flying lead changes. "I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with her," Dunlavy says. "It was a huge learning experience."

9. Get in the loop early. If you're in a general club, but you want to keep tabs on horse happenings, make sure you contact the extension office to be included on a horse project email list or other forms of communication. Counties often produce e-newsletters monthly. Read the newsletter religiously, and mark events on your calendar. Keep in mind that some horse project events-especially for beginners-happen early in the 4-H year, and kids may need to test into specific skill levels.

10. Get involved, but don't overextend. "Don't think you have to do everything the first year. It can be overwhelming, but the unique thing about 4-H is that you do what you want to and what your family can manage in terms of schedules or finances." However, she adds, "Don't sign up just to show at the fair. When you get involved, meet people, and attend events, you really start blossoming."

11. Break it down into small pieces. Sometimes, requirements in the 4-H project book or activities, events, and record-keeping can be overwhelming. Heim advises the kids she works with to take it a piece at a time. "Break the project down into small increments," she advises, making it manageable and less stressful.

12. Keep records as you go. "4-H taught me deadlines, self-motivation, and goal-setting," Dunlavy says. Recordkeeping helped Dunlavy learn some of those lessons. Keeping 4-H record books teaches kids a lot?from finances and budgeting to goal setting and deadline management. But if kids wait until the last minute to fill them out, they'll be learning about all-nighters.

Heim says the main thing is to get them done early?and don't try to fudge. "I helped my 10-year-old grandson, and it took us a month to do his record book. We worked on it a little bit at a time," Heim says. Record books include a space for each child to tell their project's story. Heim says that it's OK to allow the child to tell you the story in his words, to type it in, and then let him put his story together from that draft.

13. Attend clinics, potlucks, field days, and other events. Watch for events such as schooling shows, clinics, horse project orientation, or fun days where you'll be able to ask questions, gain experience, learn new skills, and get a feel for what you should be doing for your project. Don't be afraid to talk to leaders, volunteers, and experienced 4-Hers if you're not sure about a requirement or deadline.

Young girl wearing a green helmet riding a paint horse.

14. Prep for fair. For kids planning to show at the county fair, Dunlavy recommends going to a show or two several weekends before the fair. "Even if you don't care how you place," she says, "it can help you see what your horse is going to act like away from home. You can see simple things to work on, get all your show clothes and equipment ready, and make a list of things you need to remember to put in your show boxes or trailer."

Check with an experienced 4-Her or leader about your county's stalling procedures, camping lotteries, or facilities to avoid surprises. If you have a chance to see what stalls look like, you'll be able to prepare for your horse's stay.

"You can be mentally prepared for where your horse is going to be," Dunlavy says. "One of my horses got extremely nervous being in middle stalls, so if I knew where her stall was, I could be prepared ahead of time."

[READ: Tips for Enjoying Horses With Kids]

15. Lend a helping hand. Helping each other is a 4-H hallmark, and you'll often see older kids working with younger kids, helping each other at fair, and jumping in to loan a piece of equipment or whatever might be needed by a fellow 4-Her. "I never would have learned to be the leader I feel I am if I hadn't had all the amazing examples from older peers, 4-H leaders, and volunteers," Dunlavy says. "Everyone is there to learn. You see all the people around you working hard. It keeps you humble and grounded."

16. Think "whole kid" not just "horse kid." As any 4-Her can tell you, the 4 "Hs" are "Head, Heart, Hands, and Health." It's been that way for about 100 years, and generations of kids have grown up with the 4-H pledge. It's a four-leaf approach that has multiple benefits.

"4-H is about the whole kid, not just cows and cooking," says Heim. "There's everything from rocketry to entomology. The goal is to develop life skills. The horse is a vehicle. The kids' interest in that one thing (horses) brings kids together and brings us together. They learn the importance of recordkeeping and how to give a presentation. What you learn about your project or your horse, really, that's a bonus. It's the life lessons that 4-H is about."

17. Don't lose sight of 4-H's lessons. Dunlavy says that "with 4-H, the learning, leadership, and horsemanship is held at a higher level of importance than the placing. Kids will find in 4-H that at the end of the summer, they won't remember who placed where as much as the times they sat in the barn aisles and talked or had water-balloon fights.

"I think that for both kids and parents, it's important to remember everyone is there to learn. No matter how much you think you know, there's always something more to learn."

Patterson advises parents and kids to embrace the entire 4-H program. That means that kids in horse projects may help their community by beautifying the expo grounds, volunteering to help at shows, or teaching clinics for younger kids. With 4-H, there's a focus on community service and leadership, along with life skills that stay with a 4-Her through college and into their professional lives.

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