Owning a horse and possibly trying to get into the equine industry is very serious business, and so is the Alaska State Horse Contest.
The contest, a 4-H program which took place Friday and Saturday at Lucky Horse Ranch and at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus, put 34 — including 24 from the Kenai Peninsula — third- through 12th-graders from all over the state to the test in four areas of competition.
The areas are hippology or the study of horses, youth horse judging, presentations and a quiz game called buzzer bowl.
The contest returns to the central peninsula every four or five years.
The contest is organized by Geri Litzen, who heads up the 4-H Horse Club called the Northwind Riders. The club represents the upper Kenai Peninsula.
“I work on it for like a year,” Litzen said of staging the contest. “It takes like 60 volunteers.”
Members of the horse clubs put in similar hard work to get ready for the contest. For instance, the Northwind Riders started doing study groups once or twice a week in early September.
“These kids work super hard,” Litzen said. “They’re very dedicated. It takes a lot because there are so many parts to the contest.”
The contest is so hard because the contestants enter the event to prepare for things like horse ownership or a spot in the equine industry.
Xinlan Tanner joined the Northwind Riders because she likes horses. She heard about the horse contest and decided it sounded like fun, so she was competing Friday and Saturday as a member of the Rhinestone Cowgirls, the competition name for a junior team of the Northwind Riders.
“I think it was really fun,” Tanner said. “I’m glad I did it.”
Tanner does not currently own a horse.
“It could be a possibility in the future,” she said. “I just do this because I know it would be helpful if I ever own one.”
Juliette Benson knows how helpful a 4-H Horse Club and the horse contest can be in preparation for horse ownership.
Benson, 14, is with the Rockin’ Ranchers 4-H Horse Club out of Fairbanks. Her competition team Friday and Saturday was the Tanana Trotters.
“It’s really rewarding getting to be with the team and having fun,” Benson said. “I don’t do it for the awards, I do it because I like being with the team and learning about horses.”
Benson has been in the horse club for six years and was appearing in her fourth horse contest.
She had always wanted a horse, and last fall she got a horse named Saylor.
At that point, the reason for all the hard work became apparent.
“It just helps me to know the injuries — what to do and how to clean them,” Benson said. “I also learned about horses in general.”
Litzen said there are opportunities created by the contest that go beyond horse ownership.
She owns five horses in Nikiski and uses them for her business called Milestones Equine Therapy. The business focuses on the therapy provided by a relationship with a horse.
The horses also allows members of the Northwind Riders without horses to get a firsthand look each week at horses, thus better learning about safety and nutrition.
The horse contest played a direct role in Litzen’s daughter, Chena, finding a spot in the equine industry.
Winners at the horse contest, as long as they are 14 by a certain date, earn the right to go to Western National Roundup, which will be Jan. 10 to 13 in Denver.
Chena Litzen earned the right to go to nationals and turned that into an invaluable experience.
“She really wanted to go into the equine industry, but she didn’t know what that looked like,” Geri said.
Chena discovered what it took and now is a trainer and riding instructor in Oregon.
Even if horse club members never own a horse, Litzen said the contest teaches important life skills.
For instance, hippology includes things like a 100-question written exam and a team problem. In horse judging, contestants must judge horses and say why they are judged that way.
Presentations, which can go as long as 20 minutes without notes, hone public speaking skills.
“My own daughter went through 4-H, so high school presentations were a piece of cake,” Litzen said.
Finally, buzzer bowl is a pressure-packed setting where difficult questions are asked.
“My youngest was 9,” Litzen said. “That’s a lot to ask a 9-year-old to do.”
Litzen also encourages the Northwind Riders to participate in all four areas of the competition to possibly find an unknown talent and allow it to shine.
Finally, Litzen said the bonding of members of the clubs is invaluable.
“In this day and age, friendship among kids can be pretty fleeting with all the social media and texting here and there,” Litzen said. “When kids bond together over a common love of horses, when they work together, play together and learn together, they’re working on adult friendships as well.”
Add it all up, and the reason for all the hard work is apparent.
“This horse contest teaches a myriad of life skills such as responsibility, follow-through, determination, confidence, time management, teamwork and study skills,” Litzen said. “It allows the kids the joy of working toward something over time, without an instant payoff.
“It requires them to keep their eye on the ball and keep working hard.”
The Northwind Riders produced state champions.
In junior, Luthien Collver won for a presentation called “Giddyup and Go Camping.” In senior, Avlynne Wolverton won for a presentation called “The Building Blocks of Equine Color” and also won a state title in hippology.
In intermediate, Kellee Martin took the championship for horse judging.
Finally, the senior team of Wolverton, Collver, Madee Knowlton and Abby Peters won for problem solving.
Those interested in being in a 4-H Horse Club or participating in the horse contest can contact Litzen at 776-5868.