By Delores Kuhlwein
The debate about how to bring new youth and exhibitors into upper level shows – or the industry in general – is an ongoing topic, and one that probably still has not reached its peak of discussion.
Word is, however, that on a recent weekend in Michigan, more than one opportunity to connect to that exhibitor base was happening at the same time. The group effort that happened to converge on a particular weekend wasn’t planned, yet it represented a true joining of forces of Michigan trainers and exhibitors involved in AQHA, NSBA and NRHA.
Dr. Karen Waite, an equine Extension specialist at Michigan State University, explains that while she was judging at the Monroe County Michigan 4H Horse and Pony Program show in mid-May, she learned that friends Marcy Cutcher Lewandowski, Melissa and Jon Gordon, and Meghan Hirschman were also all involved in teaching or sharing that same weekend.
“I judged and gave feedback at the 4H show, and then I saw other friends doing something similar, all in the same weekend, and thought…hey! This is cool that trainers and breed show exhibitors were establishing and maintaining relationships with people who are early in their show careers,” explains Karen, a past AQHA Amateur and past president of MQHA. “People start showing at a breed level if they have a relationship with someone and these kinds of things establish those relationships.”
While Karen was busy with 4H youth, Megan Hirschman, an AQHA Amateur, was volunteering her time helping youth with showmanship at a horse camp.
“The Gratiot County Horse Developmental group organizes a Horse Camp for equestrian youth interested in participating in our local county fair,” explains Megan, who serves as Partnership Development Lead for the Extension Foundation and is a longtime member of the MQHA Board of Directors. “Horse Camp is designed to support skills development for all levels of riders from beginners and peewees to more advanced riders that are frequently showing open or breed shows. This year, the participants included over 30 kids ranging from 5 to 19-year-olds. Horse Camp was also combined with our Michigan State 4H Horse Show Qualifying Events (Saturday evening and Sunday), Clinic activities were held Friday evening (Gymkhana) and Saturday (Showmanship, Horsemanship, Hippology, and Crafts). Local trainers were paid clinicians for the Gymkhana and Horsemanship portions of the activity and I was able to volunteer my time helping with showmanship.”
Megan happens to be one of those amateurs who gives back by supporting the group she grew up with – now as a volunteer 4H leader of 21 years. She explains there’s an unmistakable connection between the building blocks of organizations like 4H and breed shows.
“I got my first horse at 9 and participated in 4H and Open shows my entire youth. I am now a dedicated AQHA Amateur member and started my breed show career in my last year as an AQHA youth member,” she says. “One of my current 4H members began showing MQHA shows last year because of the skills she has gained (both in 4H and recently working with a Quarter Horse trainer) and the confidence she has because she personally knows some of us showing the circuit shows. Breed shows can be very intimidating and I think it is important for me to be inviting to the kids (and adults) that may want to try that experience.”
She explains the progression of events that led to Grace being on the cusp of AQHA competition, and the open door that presented itself.
“Sometimes the most innocent inquiry makes a connection that can benefit everyone,” Marcy says. “In early 2022, I was contacted by Sarah VandenBerghe, a 4H leader in the next county, inquiring if I would be willing to do a clinic for their county 4H horse program. It took some planning since my show schedule and the participants schedule didn’t exactly work together, but we got it done in early 2023.”
In the meantime, Sarah decided that she wanted Marcy to evaluate her daughter, Grace, and her horse, Touched Like Awesome. “In a huge turn of events, that one little inquiry led to a fulltime client and a mother expanding her Warmblood breeding program to include Appendix HUS horses,” Marcy reveals.
As a result, Grace ventured into AQHA competition for the first time NOQHA Spring Extravaganza and All Novice show the last weekend in May. “As a professional I feel it is important that we encourage new members to try AQHA competition,” Marcy says.
“These kids are the future of the horse industry and the introduction to good learning and instruction by the people who are regularly showing breed shows is only going to make it stronger in the future,” Megan agrees.
Perhaps the most powerful example of the value of the link between those who nurture beginners and transition them to higher levels stemmed from Shaylene Ayres, age 7, who attended Horse Camp in May, says Megan. “”Why is Horse Camp only one time? Can we do this every week?”
To read our article about Monroe County Michigan 4H Horse and Pony Program, click below: