Get With the Program

An AQHA young-horse development program helps an enthusiastic teen find and train her next performance prospect.

It started with a daydream. For three years, I’d been showing my mare Peppermint in American Quarter Horse Association reining classes and having a blast. Now, though, as I sat in study hall my sophomore year of high school, I wondered how to become even more active with AQHA’s youth organization.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Megan D’Andrea The author with her filly, Jelly Dunnit (barn name Willow).

Then I saw it, online: AQHA’s Young Horse Development Program. It showcases the versatile stock being produced by AQHA Ranching Heritage breeders. Through this program, older AQHA youth members apply for a chance to receive a Ranching Heritage weanling to raise.

I applied for the program straightaway…and wasn’t selected. But that didn’t slow me down. Kids who aren’t picked can still buy a weanling and participate in the program anyway. So that’s what I did.

‘She’s Like Me’
My family and I went to the Big Valley Ranch in Monterey, Virginia, the Ranching Heritage farm closest to where we live in Fowler, Ohio. When we first saw the ranch’s 10 beautiful weanlings, they crowded around us in a friendly way—all of them except one, that is. Jelly Dunnit was a little palomino filly of Hollywood Dunnit and Dual Pep breeding. She stood apart but kept craning her neck to look at us, as if she wanted to come over but just wasn’t quite sure.

I liked that she was different from the others. I’m a little that way myself. I do things my own way, and rarely follow the crowd. By the next morning, I’d chosen that shy little palomino for my own, nicknaming her Willow.

We hauled her home and settled her in a stall. The following morning, she nickered softly as I entered the barn to feed. She was still standoffish, and a lot of people predicted I’d have trouble with her. They said she needed a lot of longeing and other active groundwork to be gentled, work I couldn’t do because it would strain her young joints.

But I wasn’t worried. Though Willow hung back in her stall, her tiny head turned this way and that, following me as I did my chores. I could tell she wanted to get to know me, and I resolved to find a way to work with her that wouldn’t stress her legs.

I started with oh-so-gradual desensitizing. We worked with plastic bags, pool noodles, big/bouncy balls. As I schooled her this way, she began trusting me more each day. Eventually I could balance noodles on her back and slip an inner tube over her head—and she barely noticed.

We advanced to walking over a tarp. She balked at first, snorting and pawing. I persisted, and 45 minutes later she was standing nonchalantly on top of it. No problem!

Take the Time It Takes
Tight spaces were more challenging. When I tried to lead her through a narrow paddock gate, she balked. I taught her “sending” exercises, asking her to move between me and the fence. She mastered those and we went back to the small gate. She was better, but still nervous.

A week later, I could stand on one side of the opened gate and point, and she’d walk quietly through on her own. Eventually, I upped the ante by opening the door to the trailer and pointing. She walked right in! I was so proud of her.

Now I can’t wait until she’s old enough to ride. I’ll start her myself, with advice from AQHA Professional Horseman Margaret Fuchs of Saddle Creek Farms in Canfield, Ohio. She specializes in reining, and that’s what I want to do with Willow.

In the meantime, this filly has already taught me so much. I’ve learned that hard work pays off, and that you can make incredible progress by doing a little each day. I’ve learned that desensitizing is a great way to earn a horse’s trust and respect.

Most of all, I’ve learned that with horses, no matter what the question, patience is always the answer.

Megan D’Andrea of Fowler, Ohio, is now a junior at Joseph Badger High School. She shows in AQHA and National Reining Horse Association events, and in 2013 won an NRHA Varsity Reining scholarship. To learn more about Megan and the AQHA Young Horse Development Program, go to

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