To some, riding a horse at the Hood River County Fair means a shot at earning the blue ribbon.
To others, the experience is itself a satisfying prize, and thanks to 4-H leaders Lori Hourston and Vicki Sieverkropp, six more children get to enjoy some of the fair’s little thrills. They may even earn blue ribbons of their own, when they compete Thursday morning in the horse arena. The fair opens today at the fairgrounds in Odell, and runs through Saturday.
Hourston and Sieverkropp formed the Bits and Spurs Challenged Rider Club two years ago in order to give disabled children the chance to learn the basics of horsemanship, participate with their peers and boost their self-esteem.
Lori Hourston was inspired to start the club as she watched her daughter Sarah, now 14, participate in 4-H riding events. She thought that her special needs son, Michael, now 12, would also benefit from participating. “I wanted to start something that he could succeed in, too,” said Hourston. “I talked with (4-H staff chair) Billie Stevens and the 4-H horse leaders, and everyone seemed very supportive. Without Billie, it wouldn’t have been possible — we’re crossing new bridges all the time.”
Sieverkropp, who works with high needs children at Mid Valley Elementary School, knew Michael and thought the club was a great idea. Like Hourston, she has always loved horses, and enjoys seeing a different side of the kids she works with during school hours.
“I love to spend time with the kids outside of school,” said Sieverkropp. “You have a more personal relationship. You get to see them smile and laugh, and see who they really are.”
There’s plenty of smiling during the club’s once- or twice-monthly meetings, in which kids get to ride about 30-45 minutes each on horses Windy Sue (Houston’s) and Maggie (Sieverkropp’s).
Hourston and Sieverkropp co-lead the club with help from junior leaders Sarah Hourston and Corey Krutsch.
Its membership is open to fourth- through twelfth-graders, and includes Max Farris, Michael Hourston, Sylvia Martinez, Marty Kauffman, Kera Thomsen and Joel Pelayo.
Three of the riders are assisted — the horses are led in front and an instructor walks on each side. Usually 4-H members volunteer to help, and receive community service hours for their effort.
Sarah Hourston started helping as soon as the club was formed.
“You have to be patient when you’re teaching kids new things,” she said, “but it’s fun to help show them how to ride.”
The other club members ride unassisted, but safety is always top priority. Fun comes in at a close second.
“It’s mainly for the kids to feel good about themselves,” said Sieverkropp.
“We do this so the kids are able to walk their horses down the barn aisle, see their pictures up there next to the other kids’, and feel proud,” said Hourston. “One of our main purposes is to get them out there to have fun and do something they wouldn’t normally do.”
Some of the members also learn how to care for their horses, feeding them and maintaining their stalls.
“We try to teach them that horses are for more than riding — there are responsibilities,” said Sieverkropp. She described one of the riders, who used to have trouble interacting at all levels.
“Riding has lifted her self-esteem and her whole spirit,” said Sieverkropp. “Her mom says it’s wonderful.”
This Thursday, the club will be riding in the Hood River County Fair’s horse show.
The Challenged Riders Class is expected to begin showing between 10 a.m. and noon with the assisted and unassisted walk, walk/trot and trail classes. As Hourston noted, the judges are lenient.
“The kids can’t really compete with their peers, but they can go out and have fun,” said Hourston. “It feels really good to go out and win the blue ribbon.”
It makes their bodies feel good, too. As Sieverkropp pointed out, riding is good physical therapy, stretching out muscles that wouldn’t normally be used to such a degree.
The club is facing the prospect of gaining two or three new members next year, and is strapped for resources, including helmets, tack and other equipment. Moreover, they need another horse.
“We’d like to find someone who can commit one day a month and would be willing to transport their horse to the class,” said Sieverkropp.
“It would also be nice to have a central place where we could ride for free.”
Hourston noted that parents are required to be present at the club meetings.
“We feel it’s important for them to feel involved in what their children are doing,” she said.
For information about the Bits and Spurs Club, contact Hourston at 386-7363 or Sieverkropp at 387-5961.