Each September hundreds of 4-H’ers, their parents, and their horses converge at one of Virginia’s largest 4-H events and one of the largest 4-H horse shows in the country. This past year, a record number of riders – more than 575 in all – participated in the 45th Annual Virginia State 4-H Championship Horse and Pony Show.
The four-day event, held at the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, features almost every kind of horse-riding event imaginable from pleasure, equitation, and dressage to jumping, Gymkhana, and trail classes. The events are held in six show rings simultaneously with more than 170 classes total. Most participants arrive with their horse in tow, while others come to participate in the knowledge competitions, including horse judging, hippology, and the horse bowl.
During its 45-year history, the show has become one of Virginia’s premier 4-H events, rivaling similar events across the country.
According to Celeste Crisman, youth Extension horse specialist, the show’s success can be attributed to a group of dedicated and loyal volunteers. “They are crucial to the success and safety of the show. We could not run the show without these volunteers,” she emphasizes.
A small army of volunteers, nearly 200, takes on the daunting task of ensuring that the show runs smoothly and also makes sure the kids are safe and have fun. With the exception of Crisman and two other staff members, who assist in the planning stages of the show, the show is run entirely by volunteers. Many Extension agents also volunteer their time at the show.
Volunteers serve in the traditional horse show roles such as announcers, show secretaries, paddock masters, ribbon marshals, gate operators, safety coordinators, and ringmasters. Many also serve in less noticeable roles as cheerleaders, advisors, mentors, fundraisers, and even wardrobe consultants.
Many volunteers arrive on Thursday and stay until the last horse exits the show grounds on Sunday. They put in long hours well in advance of the show, recruiting and organizing volunteers, collecting and polishing trophies, soliciting operating funds, and organizing classes.
These volunteers are very serious about what they do and they know they play an important role in these kids’ futures. A large number of the volunteers have been through the 4-H programs themselves and can tell stories of how 4-H provided them with opportunities to learn life skills or how they were influenced by a volunteer’s wisdom or advice.
Volunteer coordinator Debbie Agnew of Glen Allen, says that it’s usually not difficult to recruit volunteers because everyone sees the value in the program. A large number of them return year after year.
Agnew, who has been a show volunteer for more than 25 years, cites one of the original founders of Virginia’s 4-H horse program, Arden Huff, as a reason for the show’s success. Huff provided leadership to the 4-H horse program for more than 30 years during his tenure as Extension horse specialist.
“It all goes back to Arden Huff. He did a phenomenal job of recruiting people. He had a way about him,” says Agnew. “He made you feel like you were truly needed and truly appreciated and that he wanted you to come back.”
Alan Spivey of Madison, who has been a volunteer for more than 35 years, transitioned straight from a participant at the show to a volunteer. Huff encouraged Spivey to get involved in announcing horse shows after attending auctioneering school. He announced horse shows professionally for about 10 years and returns each year to help at the state show.
Spivey explains that he continues to come back because of the people. “Everyone comes from everywhere and we all inspire each other and we make each other better than we are separately,” he says.
Spivey feels his involvement benefits him just as much as those he is assisting. “I always take away much more than I give. I learn so much from all the people involved,” he says.
Although several of the core show volunteers have been involved with the show for more than two decades, new volunteers are recruited yearly.
Ronnie Marshall of Glen Allen happened to be at the right place at the right time in 2003. His nephew needed a ride to the show midweek. When he arrived, the person who was in charge of the ribbons could not stay because of a family emergency. He could see that they really needed some extra help, and he decided to stay the rest of the week.
“When I got here I could tell that this was something special. When a kid is out there before sun up having to deal with their horse and putting that kind of effort forth, you know it is something that teaches them discipline,” says Marshall. “Since I had the experience, I came back the following year to help. I got hooked on helping.” Marshall has been co-chair of the ribbons and trophies ever since.
Whether it’s their first year or their thirtieth, volunteers come to reconnect with the kids and their extended 4-H family.
“Showing up here once a year is like going to a family reunion,” says Connie Collier of Richmond. Collier has been a 4-H volunteer for more than 40 years and serves as the budget manager for the show. She no longer has horses of her own and says that the show keeps her involved. “One of the best parts of the show is to see the youth grow and have pride in what they are doing. Getting to see the 4-H family is just extra icing on the cake.”
And for whatever reason people volunteer, few would disagree that the kids are what it is all about.
Bertha Durbin of Free Union started volunteering when her children joined 4-H about 17 years ago. “It is a unique opportunity to be with your kids, and participate in their interests. All of the kids that I’ve worked with throughout the state – I consider them to be my kids,” says Durbin.
For the kids, the life experiences at the show are invaluable, explains Agnew. “I’m a former 4-H’er and I showed at the state show. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I do now ... there was a volunteer that made it happen for me, and I need to be that volunteer who makes it happen for these kids.”