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.
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.
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.
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.