Horse quiz team readies for national competition

Having proven themselves to be the biggest horse nerds in Alaska, members of the North Wind Riders 4-H equine club will attempt to lead the herd nationally at the Western National Roundup Horse Bowl quiz competition in Denver, Colorado, Jan. 7.

Members of the club’s quiz team, who in April beat seven other four-person teams at the Alaska Horse Bowl in Palmer to win the state championship and qualify for the national tournament, gathered Monday in the Nikiski home of adult adviser Geri Litzen, who spent hours asking them about everything from the Queen of England’s favorite horse breed (the Cleveland Bay) to the safety abbreviations printed inside riding helmets.

Litzen said that since the summer, her quiz team has been cramming on horse “anatomy, physiology, breeds, training, facilities, safety, health, industry standards, current horse events, historical horse events, famous race horses, evolutionary history of horses — all kinds of things.”

Quiz team member Avlynne Wolverton said her favorite subject is the genetic science of horse breeding. Her least favorite subject is horse parasitology. The group unanimously agreed.

“It’s so disgusting,” quiz team member Abby Peters said.

As soon as she said this, Litzen asked the team to name as many horse parasites as she could.

“Bots, stomach worms, strongyles — large and small — roundworms, pinworms, bud worms, tape worms,” Wolverton said. “Mites and lice. Flies. Blister beetles. Mosquitoes, ticks…”

Litzen, a former public school teacher, said the club’s intensive horse study helps them in other ways as well.

“No matter what the subject area, if you study anything this intensely, it’s so good for life skills,” Litzen said. “You’re learning how to go out, find information, apply information, and all the different things you have to do to retain information. I drill it into their heads. … I’m just developing more independent learners.”

Group member Kimberly Heckert, a home-school student, said that last year she used her Horse Bowl study as a biology unit.

“The horse and human body align,” Heckert said. “It’s mostly the same terms, so it was easy to figure it out.”

The study has practical as well as academic value. Wolverton gave an example of applying her Horse Bowl knowledge to the mare that she leases.

“One time our farrier came over and she said ‘your horse has thrush in the central sulcus,’” Wolverton said. “I said ‘OK,’ but I didn’t know what it meant. Then I came over here and we studied it, and I was like, ‘I know what to do now.’”

Many of the North Wind Riders don’t own horses of their own. Litzen, who became involved in the 4-H group when her own children were members, said the club “is not primarily a riding group, because that would exclude a lot of kids who can’t afford to own a horse in Alaska. We have everywhere from kids who own their own horses to those who lease them, and then kids who come here and use my horses. I teach a lot about care and handling and equine science with my own five horses.”

This will be the second trip to the National Horse Bowl for Litzen’s quiz team. After winning the 2014 Alaska Horse Bowl, they placed fourth in the National Competition.

This year’s quiz team has four different members — competitors aren’t allowed to enter more than one national quiz bowl — who gather regularly at Litzen’s dining room table, which on Monday was covered in horse books and manuals, photo-copied anatomical diagrams, files of notes written on index cards, a heavy binder containing the authoritative Horse Industry Handbook, and a buzzer machine on which they practice ringing in to answer questions.

In addition to working out their buzzer fingers in the quiz contest, the competitors will also spend their time in Denver serving as mock judges in youth horse shows, shopping for equestrian gear that’s sometimes hard to come by in Alaska, and attending exhibition events such as freestyle reining, in which horses and riders perform athletic choreographed routines with costumes and music.

“The competition is really tough, but there’ll be some fun stuff, too,” Litzen said.

Many of the North Wind Riders are unable to say how or when they became interested in horses.

“I’ve been horse-crazy since I was born, pretty much,” Wolverton said. “As young as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with horses.”

Litzen echoed the sentiment with her own experience.

“I remember getting in trouble in second grade because I was whinnying in class — I was reading a horse book and I was just so into it,” Litzen said.

“That’s why I do this club. There’s so many kids who feel this way. They have this passion and nothing to express it with. If you don’t own a horse, when do you ever get to do any of this? So when the kids come over they brush them and lead them around and get to know what it really is to work with horses — if it’s really what they want, or if it’s just a little girl or little boy passion.”


Reach Ben Boettger at

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