It was a cold winter's night when I happened to look out the window of my trainer/4-H leader's home and saw a scene much like this one. Yes, I really was the one who first saw it and no, it wasn't the grotty home I was standing in that went up in flames (though with the general level of care lavished on the place, it would have surprised no one). It was the other, older and currently unlived-in house on the farm that was blazing away. This was located about a quarter mile away down the lane which is why nobody had noticed until then.
I had never seen a house on fire and I was shocked. I think I stuttered and pointed and then finally got out the words, "The house is on fire!" followed by, "NO, NOT THIS ONE!" A dash for the door did ensue amongst my fellow 4-Hers, but it was to see the sights, fortunately not because they thought themselves in imminent danger. Any plans to discuss the care and feeding of the senior horse (or whatever topic we had been assigned) were instantly dismissed, of course, and the rest of the evening was spent watching the police, firetrucks and firefighters deal with the "disaster." The truth was, nobody really cared; local teenagers had been using the place as a party joint and it was just as well that someone's (possibly) careless cigarette had burned it down. The house was quickly reduced to ashes and the general attitude was, "Good riddance."
The house fire was but one of many memorable moments during my 4-H career. Here are some others which didn't involve property destruction:
I think I mentioned that I joined our brand-new Horse Bowl team right away. Horse Bowl, for those who are unfamiliar, has nothing to do with this; no, it's a game- show type of event with teams competing to answer equine-related questions quickly and accurately. You ring in and if you answer correctly score points; points are also subtracted for wrong answers, so you have to feel confident before hitting your button. My good memorization skills and love of minutiae served me well in this endeavor. Team members were assigned areas of specialization, though, and unfortunately I was given the dry and uninspiring topic of "Nutrition." I would have been much happier with "Anatomy," "Lameness," "Tack," or pretty much anything else but that's what I got. So I studied my little heart out learning things like the ten essential amino acids (I still know most of them...) correct Ca:Ph ratios, and ration-balancing, which I particularly hated because it involved math.
Our team did well enough one year to make it to the State championship. We didn't win but I acquired the nice little trophy that stands on my Horsey Shelf. Being in Horse Bowl was a great experience and I recommend it to any young equestrian. (Still going strong in NJ - here's the website)
Every year a 4-Her participating in Horse Project (and I would imagine other projects, too) had to prepare a report including visual aids to be presented first to the club. It could be on any horse-related topic you chose, and you were judged individually, not against anyone else. I think we received evaluations ranging from "Poor" to "Superior." If you did well enough you could advance beyond club level. Luckily, I've never had much of a problem with public speaking but some kids had a terrible time.
I remember two of the presentations I did in particular. One was about equine teeth - I still recall a lot of what I learned - and the other was on Lipizzan horses. That one was particularly fun because I had a slide show from when I went to Vienna to see them at the Spanish Riding School. This presentation was a huge hit. I received a Superior score in the club, a Superior score at the County Finals, and earned myself a trip to the State Finals, where I also received a Superior (yes, I was very nervous there!). I always wonder if anyone else in NJ 4-H ever had photos of the real Lipizzaners as part of their presentation? Here's the trophy I was awarded at State:
|They were very smart to make these out of Armetale - no polishing needed!|
I have to say my favorite aspect of being a part of 4-H was - the horse shows! Our shows were held at our lovely county fairgrounds, where there were at least two standard rings and an "outside" hunter course, on the grass. I really didn't know what to expect the first time I went to a 4-H show but I quickly learned. Some people were very serious competitors, had nice horses, and were pretty cutthroat. Others were content just to be there with their little backyard ponies and have a good time. I guess I fell somewhere in the middle: I liked to win, and I got to ride some pretty good horses, but I always tried to be complimentary to others and help out when I could.
Well, MOST of the time. There were two people in particular who I remember vividly from 4-H showing, Navajo Saddle Blanket Girl, and Sandra J., who I very happily could have strangled on numerous occasions. Sandra J. and I had History behind us. Her mother had been my Brownie Girl Scout leader and a nastier woman has never lived (even my mom agreed). She played favorites with her daughter all the time, which drove me bonkers, and Sandra herself was a spoiled rotten brat. Then, to my everlasting dismay, the family acquired two horses for their little darling (actually a horse and a pony) that they kept in their backyard right down the street from me. I wrote about this here. If I didn't despise Sandra already this definitely did the trick.
Sandra belonged to another 4-H club and was always at the shows. 4-H classes were separated by age, not ability, so we would wind up in the same ring a lot. Sometimes she would beat me, and sometimes I would beat her. I'm afraid I was rather pleased when the latter happened. In particular, I recall a certain Sr. Equitation on the Flat class....
It was the last show of the season and I was riding a bay OTTB mare called "Mom's Apple Pie," "Mom" for short. This girl belonged to Trainer's Daughter and was her Big Eq/Maclay horse. Mom sure had the ability for 3'6" but she was HOT, hot, hot. (Trainer's Daughter did okay on her but they never made it to the Garden) To ride her, using TD's Prix de Nations saddle, no less, was a real treat and I was determined not to screw up. Mom was behaving, I'd managed to force my toes in every time I passed the judge, and things were going fine - until we were asked for the right-lead canter. I can remember exactly what happened. I cued her for the canter depart and Mom went UP, not forward. I asked again - same result. Finally, on our third try, I got her settled enough and away we went (thank God on the correct lead). Unfortunately, the judge had seen the whole thing. I knew any chance for a ribbon was gone.
So imagine my utter shock when I not only placed in the class, I was awarded the BLUE RIBBON. I burst into tears and flung my arms around Mom's neck. This was a good-sized class, by the way, with at least 15 riders (prob. more). When I was leaving the ring I spied Trainer, who was laughing and shaking her head. She came to meet me at the out gate and said, "All I can say is I guess the judge liked the way you handled that blowup, because she was definitely looking RIGHT at you when it happened."
Our goal for the county season, which consisted of three or four shows, was to qualify to show at State during the NJ State Fair. I actually did qualify two years, in at least two classes (Hunter Pleasure for sure, I think Sr. Equitation on the Flat, and some over-fences class as well) - but wasn't able to attend the State shows due to timing and cost. It's okay, I still feel lucky that I was able to participate in 4-H at all!
P.S. Something possessed me to try Googling the name of my 4-H club and to my astonishment, I found a digitalized newspaper article from Nov. 18, 1980 that mentions the club. The officers are listed and I was the Secretary! I have ZERO recollection of that so it's pretty funny...