When it comes to horse knowledge in a national competition, teams from Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas would be expected to place at the top, but Alaska?
Four teenage girls from Alaska — three from the Kenai Peninsula — placed fourth in Horse Bowl at the Western National Roundup Jan. 8-12 in Denver, Colo. Named the North Wind Riders, team captain Chena Litzen, 16, from Nikiski, placed third individually.
Western National Roundup is an annual 4-H competition with more than 900 participants from 30 states. Youths ages 14 to 19 qualify for the roundup by winning a state qualifier to compete in multiple 4-H events from horse and livestock judging, livestock quiz bowl, hippology, public speaking and more.
The North Wind Riders from the Kenai Peninsula region include Litzen and her sister Penelope Litzen, 15, from Nikiski, coached by their mom, Geri Litzen. Makayla Derkevorkian, 17, of Soldotna is in her second year with the team. After one of their previous teammates moved, the squad needed to fill a spot to compete at nationals so they added Emma Osimowicz, 17, from Fairbanks.
Chena compared their team’s experience to the Jamaican bobsled team competing in the Winter Olympics. She said some people didn’t think there were horses in Alaska and by the end of the roundup, the girls felt like rock stars walking around Denver because other teams wanted to learn more about the state.
Derkevorkian said competing at a national event with more than 900 peers was an amazing experience.
“We got to meet kids from all over the country,” she said. “I never heard so many accents in one place before.”
While competing at nationals was a thrilling achievement, the team has set their focus back to state competition. The Kenai Peninsula will host the eighth annual Alaska 4-H Horse Contest April 11 and 12 at Kenai Peninsula College for horse and livestock quiz bowl and at the Solid Rock Bible Camp arena for horse judging.
As the North Wind Riders prepare to host the state 4-H competition, they are looking to add new recruits to their team as well as parent volunteers to help coordinate the event.
Kenai last hosted the state horse contest five years ago. That’s when the Litzen family first became involved. Now as the team is older and full of veterans, they are looking for a younger batch of recruits to mentor as the peninsula gets set to host the event again, Chena said.
“We want to get a lot of other kids interested and grow the program because a lot of other states have tons of people competing,” she said. “We want kids to start learning now. It will make the horse industry stronger in Alaska.”
Chena, who had been involved with 4-H for 10 years, said she has plans to learn about the horse business through a college program and pursue an equestrian career. The Litzen family has a stable of six horses on their Nikiski property.
“I was the little girl that loved horses growing up,” she said. “I have gained so much knowledge through the contest. We call ourselves horse nerds.”
Derkevorkian became involved in the program through her family. Along with her older sister she showed rabbits and ducks at the fair and has competed in rodeo events. Just like her older sister she now participates on the peninsula horse bowl team.
Geri Litzen said kids can get involved with 4-H as early as third grade and don’t need to own a horse to participate. Anyone with an interest in horses or other livestock can join the team and develop good study skills that are valuable for college preparation. The cost for a 4-H membership is $12 for a year and comes with many benefits, she said.
“We wanted to get awareness out because we would not have gotten involved if it hadn’t been on peninsula,” she said. “We need an army of volunteers and can help guide people. We want adults that want kids to succeed and encourage them.”
Geri said anyone from local veterinarians to parents who can make a pot of soup can help. Teams from Kodiak, Fairbanks, Juneau and Delta Junction will descend on the peninsula.
Horse bowl is a Jeopardy-type quiz in which teams match up in a tournament and compete to answer horse knowledge questions. Chena said the peninsula team studies year round in preparation for only a few horse bowls a year. Questions involving anything about a horse can be asked from breed to history to health to anatomy to riding.
She said sample questions could be if a horse has sweet clover poisoning, what’s its deficiency, or if your horse is this old, how many teeth does it have? Litzen said the team comes up with weird ways to help memorize answers while having fun studying together.
“I’m glad it’s a team thing because if it was individual, I could never motivate myself to study horse terms,” Chena said. “Our brain food and official snack is gummy bears. I think that’s how we won when we went to Fairbanks with a one-pound bag.”
The North Wind Riders made it to nationals after qualifying in last year’s state competition in Fairbanks. In a nine-team tournament the peninsula girls finished second to a squad from Tanana. But since that team had three girls ineligible because they were too young and another had already gone to nationals, the peninsula team qualified, Chena said.
On their way to the final round, Kenai beat a team from Fairbanks. In a move of sportsmanship, the Kenai club invited Osimowicz, the Fairbanks team captain, to join their squad for nationals. Osimowicz, a senior at West Valley High School, really wanted to go to nationals since it was her last year, Chena said.
In April, their temporary teammate will again be an adversary, as Osimowicz’s team from Fairbanks will attend the state horse competition in Kenai.
Geri said the team does a lot of fundraising to be able to travel to horse knowledge competitions around the state and for the national roundup last month. The Kenai Peninsula 4-H council provides a $200 scholarship for each team member and local sponsors have helped pay for travel, she said. The cost to compete in the state competition is $50 per person, compared to $400 at nationals, she said.
The dedication and commitment her team has shown in preparation for horse knowledge bowls is impressive, she said.
“The study skills they have developed and effort put into presentations to a panel of judges, no matter what content these are things you do in college,” she said. “They are learning leadership and public speaking skills and are gaining valuable experience in a field they enjoy.”
Derkevorkain and Penelope Litzen taught a class for 4-H rally day at KPC earlier this year and educated kids under the age of 10 about horses and held a mock quiz. Penelope said it was fun to help mentor and inspire kids through 4-H to become strong adults and leaders.
Chena said when she first joined the team, she looked up to the older girls like Derkevorkain’s sister and she wants to impart some of her experience with a new group.
“We are the older kids now,” she said. “I want to be a mentor for others and encourage them. We want Alaska to have strong team at nationals every year.”
For anyone interested in joining the team or volunteering for the upcoming state horse contest, contact Geri Litzen at 907-776-5868 or call Jason Floyd, a 4-H agent at the Kenai Peninsula 4-H Distrct Office on Kalifornsky Beach Road at 907-262-5824.
Reach Dan Balmer at email@example.com.