Shaping the Future of Our Youth in the Draft Horse Industry
"We cannot always build the future for our youth,
but we can build our youth for the future."
—Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)
Where would we be today without yesterday's leaders, doers and thinkers? And more importantly, where will we be tomorrow without today's up-and-comers? Our industry isn't automatically self-sustaining. This is a great topic and, no doubt, an important one. That's why we decided to do a Roundtable on the subject, and involve some of the industry's most qualified in the conversation. They are not difficult to identify–You've seen some of them arrive at events with a contingent of youngsters in tow. They haul extra horses to the shows and stay until the bitter end for youth and showmanship classes. They can be spotted walking behind their kids in the plowing contest, patiently holding the old mare for a decorator class or riding shotgun in the youth team competition. And if you've visited them at home, they'll be out in the barn, spending hours upon hours teaching the fundamentals to an eager kid.
Before we get started, let's meet our panelists:
Vicky McCaffrey, Ox Kill Farm, Schoharie, New York - Gene and I have been raising Shires for almost 40 years. Our two girls grew up with the breeding and showing and we have been gratified by their interest and ability in showing drafts. Erin has worked with Shannon Cobbs and Mark Barie for a number of years and has made us proud showing our horses to many championships. We are very lucky that our girls have enjoyed and appreciated their involvement with drafts.
We have believed for years that the future of the draft industry is in the youth. If we don’t make an effort to pass on all knowledge we have acquired over the years the industry can’t survive and grow. A love of horses is essential, but so is teaching an ethic of hard work and effort. I’m afraid we see fewer youth willing to work hard at anything; but kids' interest in horses, more specifically drafts, are an exception. We have had an intern program on our farm for more than 30 years. We have had local, nationwide and international interns–from Germany (three) and the Netherlands. Our interns have ranged from 12 to 25 years old. Some have lived with us for over a year, some only two months. Ten have gone on to become veterinarians or are in school now. Gene and I have probably gained as much from sharing our lives with them as visa-versa and, in the process, we have instilled a lot of interest in many youth.
Our life has revolved around showing and breeding, but training youth in fieldwork and other draft projects is important. We need to focus not on actions, but the knowledge needed to acquire the skills necessary for youth to succeed in the draft horse industry.
Garry J. Fedore, DVM, Fedore Farms, Cassopolis, Michigan - Garry graduated from Michigan State Veterinary School in 1977, then practiced large animal medicine and surgery in Middlebury, Vermont, for six years before moving to southwest Michigan where he continues to practice, specializing in equine medicine, surgery and reproductive services, as well as working on a variety of other large animals. He is married with four children, two grandchildren on the ground and one on the way. Garry was a 4-H member as a youth and is currently active in the Cass County 4-H program. He and his family breed and show Percherons.
Brian & Colleen Coleman, Bondurant, Wyoming - Brian, currently Vice President of Equestrian Operations for Jackson Fork Ranch in Bondurant, Wyoming, grew up farming with horses. Brian began showing draft horses for a local breeder when he was 17. Colleen was the product of two horse trainers and began showing light horses when she was 12 and draft horses when she was 18. They were married in 1990 and started training, fitting, breeding and showing horses together. They have since raised, trained and shown many champion halter and hitch horses in the four major draft horse breeds over the last 21 years. From the beginning they were committed to giving youth an opportunity to work with and show horses. Some have stayed to make a living in the industry while others have gone on to be successful in other areas. The success of the various hitches they have shown over the years can be attributed in part to the youth they have employed. The Colemans have benefitted from learning from many great horsemen as well as from their own experience and believe they have an obligation to share what they have learned. For over two decades they have enjoyed teaching driving and horsemanship to both youth and adults.
Walter Schaefer Jr., Sioux Falls, South Dakota - My family has raised registered Belgian draft horses for three generations. I have been fortunate to have been around the draft horse business my entire life. I have been involved at various levels through the show ring, our family breeding program, thousands of miles of wagon trains, as well as introducing the Belgian draft horse to many people. My father was the Executive Director at McCrossan Boys Ranch in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for 29 years. This position required that our family live “on-campus,” hence the reason I reference this organization while growing up. It was “home” from the day I was born. Our family supplied McCrossans with the draft horses they used for various programming/promotional needs for over 35 years. After my father retired and I graduated from South Dakota State in Ag Education, I was the Farm Manager at McCrossans for seven years. In this role I was able to continue to incorporate our family-owned Belgians into McCrossans' marketing and therapeutic programs for young men living in a residential setting. I am currently the Vice President of Human Resources for a non-profit organization which employs over 600 people and supports over 450 adults with disabilities. I have remained very involved with my family's farming and Belgian breeding operation. I was a Board Member of the Belgian Youth and Education Board for ten years and was recently elected to the Belgian Draft Horse Board as well as serving as a Director on the Belgian Alliance since it was created. Perhaps most importantly, I am now able to see the same joy that the Belgian horse has given to me my entire life transfer into the lives of my own children (daughter Sidney, nine & son Anders, six) and many other young people, ensuring that the Belgian horse will continue to impact yet another generation.
Without further adieu, here we go ...
1-Some kids are simply not going to develop an interest in heavy horses; others can't help but to be drawn to them. What is the biggest challenge, and what is the single most important aspect in developing that interest, and in retaining it? Why?
VM: Luckily, drafts are addictive. If we can get people involved, the horses do their magic and youngsters get hooked. Our job is to get the youngsters involved and offer them the opportunity to work with the horses. All agriculture involves repetitive chores, things that must be done; this is a lesson that must be learned. Retaining interest requires providing a goal to reach. Enthusiasm occurs when the goal is met. For example, the first goal is to show in showmanship which leads to a higher goal of winning in showmanship; often, the next goal becomes to drive, then win a driving class.
Encouraging recognition of the joys of working with the horses, accomplishing goals and competency keep them going with interest and enthusiasm. Our job is to keep things interesting and challenging.
GF: Often families can’t afford to own horses. I think we need more 4-H programs like the one we have in Cass County, Michigan. This gives kids an opportunity to be involved with draft horses in an organized 4-H program.
B&C: The biggest challenge is for adults to give the kids responsibility and then allow the time and space for the youth to make mistakes. Often it is the adult that has the problem with the child’s performance or placing.
To develop interest we need to share our enthusiasm. Continue by focusing on gaining knowledge and skills and the ribbons will follow. Finally, if you develop in your child a respect for others you will enable them to make an honest living in this industry, if that is what they choose.
As an aside, we would like to note that not every child interested in draft horses needs to be the next great showman or driver. Once they have caught the draft horse "bug," they may become an announcer, auctioneer, show organizer, ringman, trainer, breeder or any combination of this or more.
WS: Allow time. Each young person is going to develop at a different rate. There always seems to be a wide variety of things constantly competing for young people’s time and attention. Set a solid foundation and let them gravitate towards what is best for them. I have two young kids who, to anyone who knows them, would assume one is engaged in horses and the other is not. The oldest may never want to “show” a horse, but she truly loves everything about the horses at Grandpa’s farm. They appear in her written stories, art projects for school, and she is the one who will ride in the pickup all day just “looking” at mares. My youngest believes that if you are not training one to lead, drive or ride there is not much use in looking at them! Two very different perceptions of what the horse means to them.
2-What is the biggest or most common mistake you've seen parents or mentors make? Why?
VM: Forcing the kids to do what they don’t want to do is a necessary task for a parent or mentor, but if the child doesn’t have a strong enough interest, it will sour them. Being supportive, finding projects without being controlling and letting the student follow their own path is important. Keeping up the interest and challenge is necessary to prevent burnout.
One problem that I remember well from the past involved judges who looked for different standards in youth showmanship classes. Youth doing what the previous judge recommended, would be criticized for that exact action in the next class. The Belgian Draft Horse Corporation standardization of youth showing has helped, but I still see different standards in judging. I strongly support that the judges talk to the participants to help them learn to do a better job, remembering that different judges will be looking for different things. The mistake is not teaching all this to beginners.
GF: Kids are involved in many things these days, often times I think too many. It is important to keep children involved in good extracurricular programs to help occupy their time, but parents force them into two or three meetings every week (or day!). You can’t do justice to any of them when that happens.
B&C: They provide opportunity without giving increased responsibility. It’s a shame when a kid shows up at the barn and their showmanship/junior cart/junior team horse(s) is/are ready to go in the ring. What have they learned? Kids that are not given responsibility when they are young tend to not have a realistic idea of the time and effort it takes to prepare and show horses. Teaching responsibility and then giving opportunity starts at home and is continued at the show.
WS: Forgetting that we all started at the very basics. Learning a new skill takes time, patience and, most of all, practice. Our culture continues to push for fast results instead of a true understanding and well-developed skill set. Young people and horses are really much the same. To get a good final product you really cannot skip the steps in between. At some point, the young person will need to develop any of the steps that were skipped. Sometimes as parents/mentors it can be difficult to remember where to start! The best way is to simply ask the young person with which you are working. Sometimes we feel that “age” equals experience and this can temporarily blind us to where the actual skill level is at, again pushing us to skip developing a solid foundation on which to build.
I remember when we broke a mare to drive who would go on to become one of our best lead mares. Gary Siemens, who was working at McCrossan Boys Ranch at the time, had gone up to our farm in Winfred around Thanksgiving to find a new lead mare for Denver. Too many of his standbys were in foal around the time of the January show and he did not want to take any chances. Gary caught a 5-year-old mare that he and my dad felt would work. The mare had never been haltered and would have been in Alameda, Saskatchewan, on the PMU line if she would have been in foal. I came home from college on Christmas break and stopped out at the barn to catch up with Gary. I wanted to take the mare out and “move” her but Gary stopped me, stating he only taught her to drive ... he had not gotten around to teaching her to lead. Later in January after the mare had done very well in Denver, Gary said he'd better work on the leading part. She continues to be the grandkids' favorite, every stick horse has had the name Maggie since! A reminder to us all, at some point, you need to develop the skills skipped earlier to get a good end product ... whether that be horses or humans.
3-Conversely, what is the single most effective and beneficial thing you can do to keep a kid's passion for horses fueled?
VM: I, again, think the horses are our best motivators. Encouraging the youngster, or adult, to see progress in their ability to get the best performance from their horse is the best motivator. Nothing makes a better motivator than winning a class. Nothing is more discouraging than doing a superior job and not having it recognized. Kids need to excel and be praised and rewarded for it.
GF: Keep it fun as well as educational. I think if it is important the kids share some of the workload, but make sure it isn’t all work. Give them an opportunity to show and drive if capable and they have the interest.
B&C: Start with providing opportunity, follow with education and help to set realistic goals. Finally, provide a truthful assessment of their performance. Nothing is ever all good or bad. A realistic assessment is critical since it provides the basis for true improvement.
WS: Allow them to grow at their own pace. Do not define for the young person what their experience will be or how it will look. Simply let them develop their own relationship and set of memories. For some it is all about the final product, getting in the show/sale ring and realizing the fruits of their labors. For others, it may be getting a meaningful task done like hauling a load of manure, etc. I have always been amazed by the conversations that take place between a person and a horse when they are alone. Horses are amazing animals in that they are very forgiving and never hold a grudge, something most humans fall short on regardless of how hard they try. Almost every young man that I worked with at McCrossan’s came from a non-ag background. I remember about the time I was leaving McCrossan’s, there was a huge push to capture all of the positive influences a horse has in terms of therapy when working with people. While there has been some impressive studies done that show great outcomes, I still rely on my simple statement: ”It just works ... no more complicated or simplified ... there just seems to be a bond that happens naturally when given time.”
4-Is sportsmanship still alive? Are more kids picking up bad habits from adult poor sports, or it is just that the rest of us are getting older and crankier?
VM: Sportsmanship is more than how you behave after winning or losing, but how you act towards other showmen at all times. I think good sportsmanship is alive and well in draft horse shows, in senior as well as junior classes. Competing hard but remaining friends is the norm.
There is more to showmanship than winning. It is not a good idea to place too much emphasis on winning, but instilling strong competitive desire is important. Winning shouldn’t be the only goal. Students must compete against themselves and recognize when they have met their personal best, even when they didn’t win.
We have found that youth look up to other winning youth more than winning adults, so it is very important to instill standards of good sportsmanship early in the youth competitors.
GF: I hope so! Yes, adults do set examples–good and bad! It extends from sporting events with parents yelling at referees to complaining about the judge at a horse show. Aren’t we also teaching our kids to think about using performance enhancing drugs on themselves if we use them on our horses?
B&C: We are fortunate to have good examples in our industry. Sportsmanship is easiest to teach if you remember, "it is easier to lead than to push." None of us are perfect and all of us adults can, and should, take time at any success or failure to check our attitudes.
We have always challenged youth to learn from each class since most of them already have the desire to win. We care not the color of the ribbon, but rather of what they have learned or even what they have overcome to be there! Even in winning there is always something more to learn.
WS: All of the above! Most people believe that hard-work and preparation leads to success. In general, people want to constantly do better and improve. As a parent this is what we want our children to understand and experience while growing up and carry forward into their adult lives. When positive results do not follow, it can be extremely frustrating, and yes, frustration is likely to be exhibited by an outward pouring of emotion (this is not limited to a young age!). Perhaps one of the greatest things we can teach our kids/young people is that there must be a time to reflect and truly evaluate the situation. Was it really all about the final placing, or more about the experience and process to get there? Sure, the judge might have been wrong (by the way, once YOU have been a judge, you see things a lot differently) or perhaps there truly is a difference in quality, showmanship, etc., hence the results. Many times the closer we are to a situation, the more difficult it is to see the reality. No matter what your age, if you have someone who will give you honest feedback that you can trust, listen to them! It may be difficult to hear what they have to say, but people like this can be hard to find!
5-Which is more of an influence on your kids–your own behavior or that of other exhibitors/competitors? Why?
VM: I suspect it is cumulative. Peer pressure usually appears stronger at the show, but how we behave at home and our love of and responsibility to the horse as well as our attempt to excel at shows rubs off and modifies how they react to other influences at the show.
GF: Number one is probably us, as parents and mentors. Kids are very observant and also see others' behavior,
but someone they know and respect is more influential.
B&C: Society/media has bombarded us all with the pressure to win. Everything is a competition (Survivor, American Idol, the Amazing Race, the Apprentice, etc.) and with the built-in drama, there are few examples of good sportsmanship. It takes effort to make sure that this attitude does not spill over into our shows.
People, including our kids, are influenced by anyone they admire. As the saying goes, "Don’t worry about what to say to a child because they are watching you more than they are listening to you." We are all role models and we can all be better.
WS: This is an easy one ... our own. Our children see how we behave/react to things every day. We can surround our kids with other people that will have many positive and, at times, poor influences on them. All of this is important as they develop down the road of life and need to make decisions of their own. Would I prefer that my own children never find themselves in a place where they are needing to make decisions that they are not ready to handle? Absolutely. However, I will always be more comfortable knowing that they were given first-hand examples of how to make those decisions. I will not always be able to be there physically for them, but I want them to have a host of examples they can draw on to make the best decisions they can at the time. I went to a seminar once where the speaker talked about the #1 sport in the workplace across America: ”boss-watching.” The same is true about young people. They constantly are watching what we do. They observe and act.
I do remember observing several exhibitors growing up–Darrel Eberspacher, Jim Westbrook, Don Schneckloth to name a few–that I always looked forward to seeing when we were out on the road. I admired each for different reasons, but nonetheless they had an impact on how I viewed the industry.
6-Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the heavy horse industry? Why?
VM: Despite the doldrums we appear to be in, I am optimistic. We continue to have contacts from young people (and even some of more advanced ages) about wanting to learn how to raise and show Shires.
GF: I always try to be optimistic. Pessimism breeds failure! Unfortunately the economy does effect the horse values, but we horse people are addicted to these noble creatures. Historically there have been up and down numbers and markets. I think we will continue to be a viable industry.
B&C: Optimistic. We have a great product which is our unique ability to teach teamwork. It is possible for one person to get a six into the ring by themselves, but it certainly is not practical. With the fact that our hitches hire crews to get them in the ring, comes all the opportunities to learn about how to work with others.
We also have people from all walks of life who own draft horses. This diversity makes us all a great team on our industry's behalf. It is a great asset when combined with a willingness to think outside the box.
WS: Very optimistic. The upcoming generation of horse enthusiasts are rediscovering and, in many instances, just now discovering the wide range of ways to utilize the draft horse. The Belgian Draft Horse Corporation and more specifically the Belgian Alliance is working hard to find ways to engage all areas of the horse industry. Bringing together the breeders, halter, hitch, pullers, weekend enthusiasts, hobby farmers, riders, etc. There is room for everyone within our industry. When going to a sale many people want to focus on the top ten selling horses. Throughout history there has always been a strong market for the top hitch, breeding or pulling prospect. What I want to know is how did the well-broke farm teams do? This is a much better indicator for the strength of our industry.
The more diverse and balanced the use of the draft horse can be, the stronger the heavy horse industry. The heavy horse industry has always been known as a welcoming group of people. We need to remember to embrace and encourage new people into our industry (regardless of age!).
7-What things do you remember as a kid that probably caused you to stay at it?
VM: I wasn’t allowed to have horses as a kid and probably over-compensated! I believe that this fact is why Gene and I feel that it is so important to offer young people who can’t have their own horse a hands-on opportunity to work with ours.
However, I suspect that if you asked my daughters, who had the opportunity to grow up in the draft horse world, their answer would be that they have stayed with it because they can’t imagine life without the horses!
GF: I didn’t have the opportunity to have draft horses as a child; we did have riding ponies and drove them. I was very involved in the 4-H program and exhibited market beef steers. I think one of the biggest reasons I continued showing was because of the friendships developed at the fair. The competition and desire to improve also stimulated me. The support of my parents, grandparents and 4-H leader was also very important.
B&C: It all started with opportunity. I don’t think we were handled with "kid gloves." Even as young people we were expected to be professionals and produce results. It has sent us on a journey to keep improving. In fact, we still have a lot that we would like to learn and try.
WS: Hard to say. For me draft horses have always been a constant in my life. I guess I have never imagined my world without their presence, it is just a part of me. Through high school, college and today, the barn is the first place I stop when at home. There was always something “calming” about it.
8-What is the most memorable thing your own mentor said to you (or did) when you were at an "impressionable age?" Do you ever say (or do) the very thing to your own kids or the youth under your supervision?
VM: My “impressionable age” was in my early 30s, when we started with drafts. The first time Gene and I hooked a team, an experienced neighbor came by and pointed out that we were trying to put the collars on upside down! The next time we hitched, we were so excited about our accomplishment we decided to head down the road to show-off to our neighbor who had farmed with draft horses. Much to our embarrassment, he quickly pointed out that we had the lines in backwards. We learned quickly that it is important to listen to those who have more knowledge and learn from your mistakes. I believe that we have tried to instill this philosophy in our own kids and all the youth who we have worked with. They also learn immediately how to put the harness on correctly!
GF: Strive to do your best, but realize there is only one winner for each event or class. Yes, I have always tried to deliver that message.
B&C: First, Bruce Roy was a mentor for both of us. He treats everyone with respect. He always gives his time to acknowledge the kids, asking them how they are or telling them when they did a good job whether it was in or out of the ring! He is engaging; encouraging our strengths and challenging our weaknesses. His enthusiasm is contagious. Bruce is a living example of what it means to follow your passion.
Second, we were both raised by people who modeled and enforced great work ethics. Then, fortunately, we were both given opportunities and had people willing to teach us. I think they saw something in us that even we didn’t see ourselves. Even though there were a few who tried to discourage us, like all kids, we gravitated to the people who saw our good side and believed in us.
We see talent in kids like we see talent in horses; it can take different forms and still be successful. However, talent is only successful if the possessor is willing to work at developing it. On the other hand, we have seen people and kids with only adequate talent do very well because they were willing to work.
We enjoy working and hope that at least that has rubbed off on the kids we influenced.
WS: I was fortunate to have many people in my life that would fit into this role. Some of them are people almost anyone who reads this article would recognize, others not so much.
My father has always been and continues to play a major role as a mentor for me in the draft horse industry. There is just something a lifetime of experience gives a person in terms of perspective. He has always allowed me time to develop. He never has been one to focus on the path a person takes, more on the final outcome. I remember the first time I drove a six-horse hitch. I was six years old and Dad let me drive the hitch back to the truck after a parade in Worthington, Minnesota. I am pretty sure that a) the horses were so broke they drove themselves, and b) someone was probably holding the lines behind me. After this experience I had a serious “itch” for driving. My youngest is now six years old and feels HE should be able to do this as well. I just tell him it was the early '80s ... things were different back then!
Fast forward 15 years later. I was driving the hitch at a parade in Nebraska. My dad told me to adjust the swing lines in my hands and they will drive better. Since I was about 20 years old at the time, it was difficult to think he might know something I did not. After I disagreed with him and he walked away, I did change the lines, and they did drive much better. Remember what I mentioned in question #4 about always having someone around that will give you honest feedback ... even when you do not want to hear it. They usually are right! Thank them for it!
When I was 14 years old we embarked on an 1,800-plus-mile wagon train throughout South Dakota marking the centennial anniversary of our state. About a year prior to this, Gary Siemans had arrived at McCrossans wanting to know more about the heavy horse industry. Gary was told that we did not have a position with the horses, but he could work as a counselor at McCrossans and spend his spare time in the barn area if he wished. This was my first experience where I saw how a person can put everything they have behind a desire to accomplish a goal. Gary “earned” his way to the barn by learning how to shoe horses and kept steel on the feet of 40-plus horses we hitched every day pulling wagons (most were 2 and 3-year-olds that had “limited” footcare experience). This was the start of about seven years of Gary having an influence on me and many others through the horse program.
When I was 16 years old we participated for the first time in the Milwaukee Circus Parade with a 12-horse hitch. I was the “brakeman (a job for which I'm not sure I met the weight requirements)." Gary Siemans was the assistant driver, and Dick Sparrow was the lead driver. This was one of my first “real” encounters with Mr. Sparrow. We were just getting ready to take off for our practice drive when Dick asked me if I was nervous. Being 16 years old I naturally said no. Dick gave me a kick in the rear and told me to get off the Pawnee Bill wagon. Dick went on to explain to me that anyone who is not “nervous” has no business being on the seat. The next day towards the end of the parade I was “promoted,” for four blocks, from brakeman to assistant driver. I had never driven the 12 before, but Dick was not the kind of man you questioned. Afterwards my dad asked what the heck happened and why I had lines in my hands. Dick just replied that he figured I could handle it, he had "trained me during the parade.”
Dick also told me that the best thing a person can do is to “take care of your crew.” At the age of 16, I was the crew, but it is something I have remembered and use in my everyday life. Take care of those around you and they will always return the favor when you need it most.
Through the years I have been able to spend some time with Darrel Eberspacher. I have never met another person who can dissect an animal from a conformational standpoint as well as Darrel. He once said that in terms of breeding you are either improving or going backwards ... never just staying the same. This truly puts an emphasis on the quality of a breeding animal a breeder selects and uses.
In college, Larry Insley was a professor at South Dakota State, working with beef extension as well as overseeing the horse department. South Dakota State had a significant light horse department and an adequate number of draft horses they used for teaching purposes. Anyone who has left home for the first time can attest, it can be a bit “different” than what the brochures say. Larry and the draft horses at SDSU made sure my new home felt very welcoming. This started a close friendship that has lasted several decades and has taken us across the United States on various horse-fueled adventures. While traveling we generally laugh that we debate things all the way to wherever we are going. Then on the way home, switch sides of the topic because the other did such a great job proving our various points. Larry is another person who allowed each one of his students the time to “figure” things out. Again, we all need people in our lives like this.
Another person I have some fond memories of while “growing up” was Maurice (Maury) Telleen. Maury and my father always seemed to have a strong bond so it only seemed fitting that when we were breeding our 2-year-old mares to a Mammoth Jack that Maury sent me some “literature” to help me better understand the art and business of raising/training mules. I received a very well-written and detailed set of manuals that Maury instructed me to read from cover-to-cover for my current project; then keep handy for when I was married so that my new bride would know how to "train" me! He wrote that I could consider it an “early wedding gift.” I always wondered what Maury was trying to tell me. (By the way … Jen is looking for the “advanced edition” if anyone happens to know where I could get a hold of it.)
9-Who in this industry is the greatest role model for all youth and why?
VM: We are lucky to have so many people who are willing to share their knowledge with youth. Foremost, and the list is too long to write, are the many excellent youth judges who make a point of explaining right and wrong and encouraging the youth. Two that come to mind are Corbly Orndorff and Brian Coleman.
I really like to encourage youth to drive as well as to do halter. We are lucky to have Morrisville College so close. They have a full curriculum in horse management that provides outstanding draft breaking, training and driving experience. They also have hosted many exceptional youth clinics. Programs like this and those offered by others, such as Roger Thoms, are a wonderful resource to young and old.
It would be hard not to mention the late Dick Sparrow who always pretended to be gruff with youngsters, but did a great job of “turning them on” to driving. The list of youth he trained over the years is long and impressive.
GF: The parents, 4-H leaders and members. They have the closest contact and influence. Our county's Draft Youth 4-H leader, Suzanne Suseland, heads up a large youth program along with many of us draft horse owners that let non-owning youth use our horses. We have regular workouts at our county fairgrounds prior to the fair. Plus, the kids go to the owner’s farm and work the horses.
B&C: This one is tough. There are several people in the industry that we would encourage our own kids to model. We narrowed it down to Steve Gregg and Gordon Ruzicka.
We like that kids can look to these guys and see all-around horsemen. They have shown every breed and are talented with halter and hitch horses. They are respected as judges.
•Steve. A highly-qualified professional, Steve is still humble and approachable. More importantly, he has provided his kids the opportunity to show hitch and halter horses even though he could have done it himself. Most importantly, he raised kids that are good sports.
•Gord is a true competitor and has excelled in disciplines other than draft horses. He has a work ethic second to none. The one thing that it is almost impossible to beat him to is shaking the winner’s hand. He also gives kids opportunities and has passed on his work ethic and sportsmanship to his kids. Most importantly, he has mentored an extensive list of people over his career.
WS: When the youth show was being put together for the NABC in Indianapolis I was a board member of the Belgian Youth and Education Fund. I was amazed when we would make a call to someone to judge one of the youth events. Most were people I knew by name, but had never spoken with directly. I was taken by surprise how quickly they would say yes. Many of these people did not accept any payment and all did a great job. To answer this question, there are so many that it hardly seems right to list them. Any time someone is willing to allow others access to their knowledge, to be patient and provide constructive feedback, I say they are in the category of the “greatest.” Every region has these people.
10-In your experience, what types of horses are good for a youth? Which are not? (i.e. Is it better to challenge them with a less polished animal, or a push-button professional one?) Why?
VM: Beginners are best matched with an experienced horse. As the youth become better as handlers it is important to challenge them with greener horses (foals can offer the most challenge!). This allows all to benefit.
I also think it is best to make a “team” for halter or hitch with the horse(s) that the handler likes best. I’ve seen many a young showman excel with difficult horses because they like them and fail with the well-trained “old faithful.” A challenge is always good if attainable, but a youngster should never be put in a dangerous position with a less well-trained horse. Unfortunately, the youth classes are usually won with the push-button horses ... a good horse certainly helps make the handler look good.
GF: The “Percheron” horse is the best! Ha! I think it depends on the individual youth. The novice young kid needs a safe horse to start learning how to properly handle these big horses. I had one of my own children that liked to work with a new young horse every year for showmanship. You definitely should have safe horses for youth driving. The youth judge should judge based on how the kid handles the horse or horses, not how good quality or natural action the horse has. The most important factor is safety and matching the ability of the youth to the horse.
B&C: Match the horse to their ability. If they are more timid, give them a confidence-builder. If they are more capable, give them a challenge. We always encouraged the more skilled showman to take a more challenging horse, usually a foal or yearling. In fact, most judges will award you based on your degree of difficulty, however, the real payoff is in what the person learns through taking on the challenge.
WS: Both. If given the choice I like for absolute new people/kids to have a push-button animal when starting out. This way the person experiencing the horse for the first time can learn. They also will know what they are working towards when working with a less polished animal. It is very difficult to teach/mentor both the new person and their animal at the same time and not have someone become frustrated. We generally had “push-button” animals at McCrossans. Safety was always number one.
Once a young/new person has more skills I feel it is best to then allow them to grow more and challenge their skills with developing a less polished animal.
I have had both in my life. My goal is to achieve that they all are “push-button.” The first time I drove a six-horse hitch competitively we had two sixes at a fair. I drove our competitive six (older mares). Gary Siemens drove a group of 2-year-olds. Anyone who has truly driven a “push-button” six-horse hitch knows what I mean when I say I have strived since that day to get a group like that again. It is like adding power-steering to the old “M” Farmall.
11-Do you think more shows should offer High-Point Youth competitions to encourage kids to be more well-rounded (i.e. How important do you think it is for youth only interested in driving to show halter and decorate; or conversely, for those who prefer to halter and decorate to learn to drive?)
VM: Absolutely, good horsemanship involves prep and handling in-hand and on the seat. The New York State Fair has a hotly contested High-Point Award for 10 to 14 and 15 to 18-year-old youth who compete in showmanship, cart, team, decorating and judging classes. We were very proud to have Melissa Restifo be the first Shire exhibitor to win this honor and Jenny Cournoyor to follow her the next year. Recently, Alexis Bleau has been reserve to Abraham Allebach, a worthy opponent. Addison Fair gives a beautiful championship ribbon to the High-Point Youth. These recognitions encourage kids to expand their knowledge in all aspects of showing.
To me, the point of all of our training is to grow a well-rounded knowledge of farmwork, fieldwork and conditioning and showing. A given child may well like one area more than others, but we encourage them to “do it all.”
GF: I always make my youth kids decorate if they want to do showmanship. I think it is good for them to learn. Most kids love driving, so if possible I like to give them that opportunity if I think they are capable. It is nice for the kids to have the high-point competitions, but isn’t fair to kids that don’t have the driving opportunities.
B&C: Absolutely they should offer a high point youth award. It sets a goal for which kids can aspire. As a youth gains more confidence they should also be required to become more competent. Perhaps a smaller child is too intimidated by a big horse to lead it in the ring but has access to a well-trained horse or team that they feel comfortable driving. If they are not strong enough in the hands to decorate or drive they may still be allowed to go into showmanship. Eventually, if that little showman wants to continue they should be required to learn to decorate. As your little driver gets bigger and stronger, require them to start decorating at least part of their horse(s) for the class.
We always encourage the kids to participate in the judging class. We think kids avoid these classes because they haven’t been taught enough about them. We have judged these competitions and realize that kids need to be educated about them just as any other class. Many people have the misconception that judging is easy, but it is an acquired skill. It requires developing an eye for how a horse is put together and moves, a fundamental understanding of how judging works, organization, terminology and verbal and written skills. Like all the classes they participate in, judging requires learning and practice.
WS: Yes. I feel that this challenges everyone involved–the young person as well as their mentors. There were only a few places doing this when I was young. If YouTube had been around in the late '80s and early '90s, anyone who would have stumbled onto a video of me braiding would have demanded a refund on the 20 minutes they just wasted!
12-There are some great youth clinics being offered where kids can pick up necessary skills and learn from respected horsemen and women other than their own parents, but overall, there is a shortage. Do you have any thoughts on what we can do as an industry to overcome that?
VM: My daughter, Erin, was lucky enough to participate as a Shire representative in the Percheron Youth Clinic back in the early '90s. Regrettably, this program has not continued. I think it would be great to have the breed associations collaborate to restart such a program. Unfortunately I don’t think the “industry” can act as a force in developing youth clinics. These usually take one person or “a few” with a strong interest and much motivation. Money always plays a huge factor in any such endeavors, so maybe this is where the “industry” can assist. Does The Draft Horse Journal want to organize a North American Youth Clinic? What better parent body!
While not a clinic, the American Shire Horse Association has developed a Youth Achievement Program where youth gain points based on the number of hours spent working with and showing Shires. Awards are given for different levels of achievement. This type of program supplements youth clinics and increases interest of youth to work with the horses.
GF: I think we need more local 4-H or youth groups similar to our program in Cass County, Michigan. Also, as a large animal veterinarian, I give clinics about equine care. Most kids wouldn’t be able to make it to seminars farther away.
B&C: We need to earmark more money and effort for education. Knowledge empowers and encourages people and helps to build a stronger industry. Many of our top professionals already donate time and effort to teach. As professionals we are always striving to expand and strengthen our industry. We see the need for well-trained youth to take our place. Usually a reasonable fee and a plane ticket is all you need to have one of them come help your group.
Where there is a will to learn there is a way. Most judges will make themselves available to answer questions. A young person can offer to help (clean stalls, wash harness, sweep the aisle, etc.) an exhibitor they look up to and in exchange, receive opportunities and gain knowledge they would not otherwise have access to at home.
Finally, we need to continue to support our local shows. Sometimes we have simply been seat fillers at them or sponsored a class. These events are the best training ground for our youth.
Final comments: Give your kids time to have fun!!! Our rule was "do nothing illegal and be up on time for chores with a smile on your face."
... and one of our favorite quotes, “A hundred years from now it will not matter how much was in my bank account, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove ... but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”
WS: Support them! Clinics are a great way to hit the “fast-forward” button and gain knowledge that would otherwise take a lifetime of experiences to create. Before going to a clinic, take some time to reflect what questions you hope to get answered or experiences you would like to be given. Many times the instructors have a lot more to offer than what is on the agenda. Every clinic I have been to has asked what the group wants to learn/what questions they want answered. Come prepared to answer this when it is asked. You will get a lot more out of the experience. Clinics are also a great way to network and develop a group of people that you can stay in contact with and continue to grow/develop over time. Make sure you meet everyone at each clinic and swap contact info. It will come in handy later!
I remember going to the Belgian Youth Clinic at Cathy Zahm's when I was 18. It was the first time I saw firsthand how to utilize a round pen when breaking young horses. I also recall some of the basic shoeing principles that Craig Grange shared with the group.
To this day I enjoy going to clinics to hear other people share their experiences. I encourage people to continue to grow regardless of age and expose themselves to new ideas and other people’s experiences.