P1000233The New York State 4-H Horse Program provides youngsters from ages five to 18 with a great opportunity to learn the basics of horsemanship — from caring for their horses to riding and showing their horses in many different events. These programs, along with the able staff and volunteers who run them, provide a ‘life-line’ and a wealth of information for children; especially those who were not fortunate enough to grow up on a farm or with a farm family.
I was one such youngster; my parents were city-dwellers who had the opportunity to move “to the country” just before I was born. It was my dream as a child to have a horse — and when I was nine years of age, I learned about a local 4-H club that was starting up in our area. My 4-H leaders worked diligently to teach us all how to properly care for a horse — with guest presenters and lots of ‘hands-on’ experience… and I loved every bit of it. For trail rides, there was always an extra horse or pony available that was well mannered and ‘taught’ its riders many lessons through the years.
When the big moment came, my 14th birthday, I was more than ready to assume the charge of my dream come true — a beautiful old red sorrel gelding that had recently been retired from summer camp. How fortunate I was to have a “first” horse that was calm, patient and well trained! We rode through the autumn, winter and spring; and by summer were ready to compete in our very first horse show. And thanks to the generosity, caring and excellence in teaching on the part of my 4-H leaders, we did very well — and even earned enough blue ribbons to advance in our showing experience.
However, through the years, a youngster might be paired with a horse that was not so patient or well mannered. It wasn’t common, but on occasion a high-headed mount with a flustered youth might be seen rushing through the ring — and once I remember a runaway actually broke through the starting gate, scattering surprised onlookers who narrowly escaped injury.
In 2003, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s 4-H Horse division instituted its program of Riding Level Evaluations — a wonderful way to ensure the safety of youngsters and their horses — and to emphasize the importance of pairing riders with horses of equal ability levels.
A Parent/Guardian’s signature is required, stating that both child and parent are interested in this child having a riding experience, and that the parent gives their approval for the riding evaluation to be performed.
The program is divided into four potential riding levels:
1. Lead-Line (in which the child can be Cloverbud or older non-Cloverbud youth. The child is mounted and is led by a side walker, who must be 18 years of age or older and has horse–related experience. The youth must be able to hold the reins in their hands; a properly fitted halter must be place over the bridle, with a lead line attached to the ring at the bottom of the halter. These youth will not be asked to back their horse, and are not qualifiers for NY State Fair at this level.
2. Walk/Trot or Walk/Jog (youth may be Cloverbud or older non-Cloverbud youth) The child is mounted and can ride safely in walk/trot or walk/jog situations. Depending on the class entered, the rider may or may not be expected to know their diagonals. As with lead-line, the rider will not be asked to back their horse, nor may they qualify for NY State Fair; but they must be able to control their horse in a group setting. Separate events/classes must be held for Cloverbud youth.
3. Walk/trot/canter or Walk/jog/lope (no leads to count — diagonals do count): This level is designed for youth that are NOT a Cloverbud and have mastered the skills of walking, trotting or jogging, and cantering or loping the horse safely, but are not yet at the skill of asking for the correct lead at the canter. Youth are expected to ride on the correct diagonal. They may be asked to back their horse and must be able to control their horse in a group setting. At this level youth cannot qualify for NY State Fair.
4. Walk/trot/canter or Walk/jog/lope (leads and diagonals do count) Youth must have mastered the skills of walking, trotting or jogging, and cantering or loping the horse safely. The riders must know their diagonals and be able to canter or lope the horse on the correct lead. The rider may be asked to back their horse. Youth at this level may be asked to do independent patterns or more copmlicated riding skills demonstrations, depending upon the classes they enter. They must be able to control their horse in a group setting.
In addition to the above-mentioned Riding Levels, there are potential “class levels” which may vary from county to county:
1. Cloverbud – can only do leadline, and walk/trot or walk/jog, children of ages five through eight working with equines.
2. Beginner
3. Maiden
4. Novice
5. Junior ages 9 – 13
6. Senior ages 14 – 18
Note that the last two class levels are determined by age rather than experience; both the Junior level and the Senior level CAN qualify for State Fair.
The riding level evaluations are conducted by a committee comprised of three individuals with suitable horse and riding experience to perform the evaluation. It is suggested that the committee consist of a 4-H leader, a parent of a 4-H youth (Note that a child may not be evaluated by his/her own parent or guardian) and an instructor when possible; other possible combinations can be determined by the county Cornell Cooperative Extension Association or educator. Youth should be evaluated on the horse that they will be riding whenever possible.
In addition to the child’s desire, balance, ability to work around the horse and riding ability, safety is stressed. A child must be outfitted properly — wearing  “equestrian footwear with a distinguishable heel” when riding a horse; wearing a properly fitting safety helmet. The tack that the horse is outfitted in must fit the horse and the rider properly. Evaluation sheets are clearly defined for each criterion that is being judged; scores are given from 0 to 4 with numbers corresponding as 0 = not at all; 1 = little skill; 2 = fair amount of skill; 3 = good skills; 4 = excellent skills.
To enroll your child in a 4-H program, or to learn more about the 4-H Horse Program and Riding Evaluations, please contact your county office of Cornell Cooperative Extension, or visit the website at:   www.ansci.cornell.edu/4H/horses/index.html