Monday, 16 August 2010 14:36

LaPorte County 4-H'ers Choose Heavy Horses

Written by  Lynn Telleen
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The foundations of what we now know as "4-H" began around the start of the twentieth century with the work of several people in different parts of the United States. The focal point of 4-H has been the idea of practical and “hands-on” learning, which came from the desire to make public school education more connected to rural life. Early programs tied both public and private resources together to benefit rural youth.

Researchers at experiment stations of the land-grant universities and the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] had noticed that adults in the farming community did not readily accept new agricultural discoveries. But, educators found that youth would “experiment” with these new ideas and then share their experiences and successes with their parents. Rural youth programs then became a way to introduce new agriculture technology to the adults.

A.B. Graham started one such youth program in Clark County, Ohio, in 1902, which is considered the birth of the 4-H program in the United States. When Congress created the Cooperative Extension Service [CES] of the USDA by passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, it included within the CES charter the work of various boys’ and girls’ clubs involved with agriculture, home economics and related subjects. By 1924, these clubs became organized as “4-H” clubs and the familiar clover emblem was adopted.

Still administered today by the USDA's Cooperative Extension System with the mission of “engaging youth to reach their fullest potential while advancing the field of youth development,” the organization serves over 9 million members in the United States from grades 3 to 12 in almost 100,000 clubs. In addition, 4-H clubs and related organizations now exist in over 80 countries around the world.

The goal of 4-H is to develop citizenship, leadership and life skills of youth through mostly experiential learning programs and to educate youth in arts and sciences, and to encourage fellowship and service opportunities. Though typically known as an agriculturally focused organization, 4-H today has grown to encompass many topics and opportunities beyond the confines of traditional agricultural and animal husbandry.



During the 1930s and 'early '40s, 4-H colt clubs were commonplace in the American Midwest. But today, youth programs that teach, encourage and promote the use of draft horses and mules are few and far between. Breed, state and provincial associations, at times, conduct clinics and seminars for kids, but they are generally of short duration and not held very often. Would it surprise you to learn that a 4-H club specifically tailored towards heavy horses and mules exists in the Midwest? I was when I found out about the WagonMasters 4-H Club in LaPorte County, Indiana.

For each of the past several years, over fifty (count 'em, FIFTY!) kids have participated in the LaPorte County Fair, with individual heavy horse and mule projects. How is this possible? That's a good question, but let me try to answer it with a bit of background and history of this amazing club.

Way back in 1963, a group of local horsemen got together and decided to hold a "show" of sorts at the county fair. Those locals included Jim Gimberling, Merle Bannwart and Ed Youngblood and the only survivors of this group, Bob & Louise Mrozinski. None were kids themselves, but they had kids and the Mrozinskis were also 4-H leaders.

Bob Mrozinski recalled that it was more of an adult playday for the first couple of years, but then their own kids entered the picture. "It wasn't much," he recalls. "We just had a driving class. Then we said we have to do more for the kids, so we added the obstacle course and some other activities. Then we had kids beating on the door to participate." With kids on board, incorporating the heavy horses and mules as 4-H projects was a logical next step. Thus, the WagonMasters became the first "draft horse" club in the state. Louise says, "The first few years, we had between six and nine kids in the club. After about five years, though, it started growing." Why? "I think that word got out, from one kid to another," she speculates. "It was something unique, something interesting and certainly, something that was fun." And things have grown steadily ever since.

By 1985, there were 13 members in the club, showing 38 horses and mules at the fair. By 1990, it had grown to 23 kids and the numbers continued to climb, to the extent that an "intermediate" division was justifiably added to the existing seniors and juniors.

The 2007 show involved 52 kids and 114 horses and mules. The 2006 show marked the largest show to date with 62 kids! So how has it grown so large? The WagonMasters have several factors working in their favor. First, LaPorte County is one of the largest in Indiana in terms of 4-H members, clubs and projects. Second, the area is also home to a good-sized and thriving heavy horse community. In addition, the fact that members and their families do not have to OWN the project animals seems very appealing to a lot of people and is, no doubt, an allure for many who wouldn't otherwise find themselves driving a draft horse. And lastly, the driving force behind the program–the WagonMasters 4-H leaders, volunteers and parents–are a truly dedicated, committed and devoted group of people.

Seven people currently serve on the Draft Horse Committee: original founders Bob and Louise Mrozinski; (their son) Don Mrozinski; (their daughter and Don's twin sister) Connie Trojanowski; Mark Prast; Terri Lawson; and Steve Gazdick. "They do all the planning and facilitating, but they also have a cadre of volunteers that help in other areas," says Patty Keating, Extension Educator, 4-H Youth Development at Purdue University.


In order to complete a horse/mule project (by showing it at the fair), 4-H members must meet a fairly rigid set of requirements. They must: attend at least eight of eleven meetings held throughout the year; care for one or more animals involving at least 10 hours of working with their project(s), a minimum of one hour each time; they must put in at least five hours of actual driving time with their project; they must participate in at least one of the various special activities that the club hosts each year (these include service projects, parades, plowdays, community events which showcase the breeds and educate the public, etc.); give a demonstration at one of the meetings on draft horses; attend the annual spring clinic; maintain appropriate records throughout the year; and participate in their respective showmanship class at the fair. Louise notes, "Very seldom does a kid enter only in showmanship."

The Spring clinic is mandatory. "We run it to get the kids acquainted with horses, with harness and every other aspect of working with draft animals," says Bob. Speakers/clinicians have included Alan Freitag, Don Schneckloth, Vicki Stout, Shannon Cobbs and Paul Sparrow. They have instructed on showmanship, decorating, cart and team driving, clipping and fitting for shows, among other topics.

Sparrow, who led the 2006 clinic on safe hitching practices, recalls, "The sheer number of participants was awesome. The kids were very attentive and, for a day-long event, to stay on program as they did, it was really something." Word has gotten out, as Louise notes, "Last spring, we had a 4-H leader from Detroit that had heard about our clinic and wanted to attend. He ended up bringing two or three kids with him!" TO THE FAIR

Showing at the fair is obviously the pinnacle of the year for the club. One of the largest 4-H fairs in Indiana, it's also the oldest. Running a full week in late July, the draft horse and mule department includes open shows on both ends of the 4-H show. "This differs from the other livestock venues (except dairy and rabbit), as the fair allows us to hold our open show during the fair," says JoEllen England, draft horse superintendent of the fair.

The first day of 4-H classes centers around showmanship ... three large classes. This requires some time, as Louise mentions, "The one thing we look for in our judges is someone that will talk with the kids and explain how to improve." This is followed by lunch, not just for the kids, but also the judge, the volunteers, the leaders and anybody that helps out. Each time that I have been to the fair, I've noticed how high on the list of priorities that food/eating ranks with this club. Bob cleared it up for me. "We feed the kids, which tends to keep them off the midway," he says. "These kids can get anything they want whenever they want it." As you can imagine, this is met with a high approval rating from the parents. In addition to knowing where the kids are, the leaders and volunteers are better able to control what they are eating.

After the break, it was on to three divisions of the costume class. Louise explained, "Over the years, we've included more 'fun stuff' to keep the kids' interest." This may have been a new competition, but you'd never know it by the ingenuity of the entries. And the wheels were already turning for next year's show.

Additional competitions include cart classes, single horse driving (ground driving through an obstacle course), team loose line driving (again, ground driving through an obstacle course), team to a wagon, wagon obstacle course, feed team races (also new at the 2007 show) and the four-horse hitch.

The four-horse hitch class is reserved for seniors and is done as a partnership–Both members drive the outfit, one controlling the lead team, the other the wheel team. For all driving classes, in case you are wondering, all members are assigned an accompanying adult.

Diane Shaffer, Hindsboro, Illinois, served as the judge this year. "I am most impressed with the juniors," she replied to my query about what surprised her the most about the show. "I believe that in a few years, they will have a very tough class of seniors."

"I'm just astounded at the number of kids, all of the parents and even the adults that don't even have kids supporting this show. It's amazing that they can get everybody to pull together for these kids. Some of the youngsters aren't even farm kids–they are city kids. So, all they know about horses is what they've learned from their 4-H leaders and from the owners of their project animals."

The open show comes with an added benefit, as Terri Lawson notes, "It really opens these kids' eyes. It gives them a bigger picture of what is possible and shows them that they can take their own horse interests to any level they choose." TOWN KIDS, COUNTRY KIDS …

The overwhelming mainspring for this program is the ability for kids to borrow horses from local owners, breeders and volunteers. Many of the 4-H members live in town and have had no exposure to horses and livestock, as have farm-reared kids. Connie Trojanowski estimates that as many as 75% fall into this category when they join. "Once they realize that they don't have to own the horse," concludes Terri, "the kids, and their parents, are sold. They can simply 'borrow' it, work with it and use it for their project while it stays at the owner's place the entire time." The 4-H leaders do the pairing, taking the child's experience into account, as well as trying to keep them as close to home as possible.

Some of the kids, such as 9-year-old Gino Francesconi, a first-year member of the club, have simply added the horse project to an already full list of activities. "Gino is our athlete," says his mother, Laura. "He's involved in all kinds of sports, but I don't think I could be more proud of him for what he's done with horses!"

Others, such as 10-year-old Brooke Prast who is showing horses for just her second year, have replaced other interests with the horse project. Brooke had trained and competed in gymnastics for five years, but gave it up to devote more time to 4-H. Her mother, Sherry Styburski, says, "It's definitely been a positive influence. Brooke used to be very, very shy ... not any more. She just loves it."

Local supporters like Tammy Heinen of Union Mills, who has sponsored kids (by supplying horses and helping out) for the past seven years are a big part of the formula. Tammy has no children of her own, but says she "inherited" one girl when she bought a team of horses. "It's really rewarding in so many ways," she says of working with the kids. "You are teaching them discipline, responsibility, commitment and management. As is always the case when working with animals, it has its highs and lows, but you learn from all of these experiences. And it's great to witness that 'light bulb moment' when something sinks in for a child."

It is clearly working. Connie Trojanowski says between 10 and 20 new kids join each year. "It just keeps progressing," she concludes. "More kids keep getting involved, more families and on and on."

Obviously quite pleased with his 4-H members, Bob points out that, "There are no arguments amongst the kids–not in the ring, nor in the barn afterwards." JoEllen England, who used to be a leader of a sheep club, adds, "It's a whole different setting than with other livestock. There's still that spirit of competitiveness, but it comes with a family-oriented atmosphere."

Terri Lawson's two daughters have passed through the program, but she and her husband, Kirt, continue to help out with the show. "When the kids get hooked, many times their parents get more involved, the adults start showing in the open shows, the kids come back after they are out of 4-H and then the grandkids come into play," she explains. "It's such a great family tradition. And, it's so much fun, it's addictive." ESSAY CONTEST

The essay contest has been a part of the Wagonmaster's 4-H Club almost as long as the club has been in existence. Each year, the 4-H member submitting the best essay, as judged by Purdue University's Cooperative Extension Service, wins a colt or yearling. To participate, members must be in at least their second year and, once they win, they are no longer eligible, but they do have to bring the animal they win back to the fair.

Lauren Gazdick won the contest in 2005 (see the sidebar of her winning entry). Her mom, Ann, says that her daughter picked a Percheron filly because it would be different than the mules to which she was accustomed and, maybe more importantly, she can then RAISE her own mules. Smart kid.

Don Mrozinski says that 90% of the essay contest winners from the past five years still have the animal they have won. And when they do sell them to finance college or whatever is next in their lives, the horses are often sold to another family that still has active 4-H'ers. Bob concedes that it's not just the leaders, volunteers and parents that tend to remain in the club. "Most generally," he says, "the horses in this program STAY in this program." Andy Smith won a mare 17 years ago. "Andy kept her through his 4-H career, then sold her to another family to help finance college. That family had kids in 4-H and she has been used by several of them, year after year, including this year ... her 16th!"

Don further explains, "We furnish $1,200 to purchase the animal. If the winner wants one that costs more, they have to pay the difference." In order to bankroll this arrangement, the WagonMasters engage in various fundraising activities throughout the year, such as port-a-pit chicken sales, the sale of hats and shirts, parade appearances, horse-drawn Christmas rides, company picnics, plow days and dances.

This year, the contest was bittersweet for the winner, Katie Cruse. Shortly after arriving at the fair, her project horse colicked and died. While this was devastating, she was able to compete at the fair by borrowing a horse. Results of the contest were not made known until the end of the show. The committee will purchase her new horse at one of the fall sales. As JoEllen England puts it, "Prayers do get answered." GIVING BACK

As the draft horse program grew, it became obvious that sharing the existing arena with some 200 saddle horses and ponies was a growing obstacle to the goals of the draft horse program. That's when locals, including retired dentist and former horse superintendent Dave Kesling jumped in and constructed a draft horse arena, barn and office, which is used exclusively during the fair week for the draft horses and mules. Dave grew up around horses, has always had an interest in them and even owns a pair of driving horses today, but says none of his kids developed an interest. So this was his way to pass something on. Bob says, "We wouldn't have all of this without him."

"Many of our teamsters started as the youths we educated," says parent/volunteer Larry Smith. "They now help to carry on the tradition." Bob and Louise's grandson, Chad Mrozinski, is a product of the program. He has since engaged in farming, in addition to shoeing, fitting and showing draft horses. Last year he served as the 4-H judge at the fair and was, by all accounts, a favorite with the kids. This year, Chad has graciously offered to take the winners of the three showmanship divisions to the Indiana State Fair, where he will provide them with a horse and cover their entries for the open showmanship classes. "It was the best way I could think of," he admits, "to motivate them to practice what I had preached when I judged them."

Katie Mrozinski, Chad's wife (of just one year) and daughter of Terri and Kirt Lawson, is yet another alumnus of the WagonMasters. Both she and Chad are 10-year members of the WagonMasters, which is, as Terri puts it, "Quite an accomplishment." In the same spirit of giving back to this club, Katie assisted her parents at this year's show, helping several junior members.

The Mrozinski Family has clearly been the driving force behind the club since its inception. The second generation is carrying on the tradition. Don Mrozinski and Connie Trojanowski have been campaigning a Belgian mare six-horse hitch at a dozen or more shows annually since 1994. Taking the Northview Belgians mare hitch on the road offers an additional opportunity for several of their 4-H members to enhance their experiences with draft horses. It also provides Don and Connie with much-needed help–Cheap, eager, youthful and energetic help.

Larry Smith maintains, "None of this would be possible if it weren't for the compassion and congeniality of the Mrozinski Family. They all go out of their way to help anyone who needs it." Much to the relief of the other committee members, leaders and volunteers, Bob Mrozinski, who is still shoeing horses at 77, states, "I don't imagine I'll ever quit until they bury me."

When asked if she had any advice for anyone who wanted to start a similar 4-H program, Louise simply said, "Just start it, set your rules, make sure everyone understands those rules and work with the kids." To that, Bob adds, "Run a clinic to get the kids acquainted with horses ... They help a lot. Then, work a lot of hours with the kids."

Purdue's Patty Keating says, "I believe the LaPorte County program is so successful because of the dedicated volunteers who give their time and effort to make sure the 4-H members have a great experience. Safety is of the utmost concern and they work hard to make sure they have the proper facilities. They hold regular meetings and clinics to teach necessary skills and allow time to practice and gain experience. And, above all else, they just care very deeply about each and every 4-H member and family." TO MAKE THE BEST BETTER

That this program has existed so long is amazing in itself. Credit for not only its formation, but also its longevity and prosperity, goes to founding 4-H leaders Louise and Bob Mrozinski. The unique combination of a grass roots effort by local horsemen, parents and 4-H leaders, coupled with the wholehearted support, commitment and dedication from the community has led to what is probably the biggest and most inspiring 4-H draft horse program currently in America. The future of the heavy horse and mule industry is both promising and assuring in northern Indiana.

Many of the kids that pass through this program may not rush out and buy a horse, a set of harness or even subscribe to The Draft Horse Journal. Some of them will unhitch entirely, go off to college, pursue unrelated careers and raise families of their own. But at some point in each of their lives – maybe in ten years, possibly twenty – they will be looking for something to fill that void, something to enjoy and share with their own kids. Regardless of what they choose, every one of them will remember being in 4-H and driving a team at the LaPorte County Fair.

The draft horse industry just might have found its most effective means of promotion ever.
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