Jody Stolte of Orange Park Acres and her horse, Classy Joe Mooner, are ready. They have spent months going through their paces--riding through gates, walking over bridges, maneuvering through poles laid on the ground--to prepare for this weekend's Southern Regional 4-H Horsemastership competition at the Orange County Fairgrounds.
A year ago this week, however, Jody was lying in a hospital bed wondering when she would be able to ride again. She had been seriously injured when she went to help a fellow member of the Orange Acres Back Breakers 4-H Club who had been having problems training her horse.
When the horse had walked halfway through a gate to a turnout area, Jody slapped him on the rump to persuade him to move forward. He kicked out, striking Jody in the head and knocking her unconscious. She nearly died of a skull fracture.
"All I could think about in the hospital was getting out and riding again," she said. "Nothing was going to scare me away from horses."
A few weeks later, she was back in the saddle, training with her 4-H group on weekends. The members have spent the past several months gearing up for this weekend's regional competition against 4-H members from eight counties. It is open free to spectators.
Jody, 12, who is in her fourth year with 4-H, considers this her "first big show." It is also a first for Southern California, which has never held a 4-H competition on this level.
Its organizer, Larry Carlson of Rancho Carrillo (in the hills near San Juan Capistrano) got the idea four years ago when he was attending a national 4-H forum in Washington. "Other groups were having activities on the county, regional and state levels," he said. "It made me realize how isolated we've been in California. So I decided to find a way to bring the counties together."
Working with 4-H leaders Jeri Wickham of San Bernardino County and Sue and Ray Estrada of Riverside County, he created a competition for riders from Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, Inyo-Mono, San Diego and Imperial counties. Fifty riders are competing in the horsemastership portion of this weekend's event, which tests a rider's expertise in grooming and saddling, negotiating trail obstacles and equitation (proper riding form). Judges question the riders on safety, parts of the horse, grooming, tack, and horse colors and markings.
Sunday's "horsebowl," with 80 competitors (four-member teams from 20 clubs), is an imitation of television's College Bowl quiz game.
"I really admire the kids who signed up for the horsebowl," said Carlson, an English and physical education instructor at Orange Coast College and head of the Rancho Carrillo Roadrunners 4-H group. "It takes courage to put your reputation on the line in front of an audience that is sizing you up as a horseperson."
Amy Bogartus, 11, of Orange Park Acres is competing in the horsebowl and in the riding events with Rhaanon, her half-Arab mare. "I've been practicing all year for this," she said. "It's going to be exciting and fun. I'll get to learn what I'm doing right and what I need to learn about horses."
Linda Pine-Rossi, Irvine-Mesa Charros 4-H group leader and a riding instructor at UC Irvine, has four students competing.
"This event teaches the kids leadership qualities and how to improve themselves as horsepeople," she says. "And it helps them find out where they need to improve, but in a positive environment. They're challenging themselves to see what they know, instead of riding against others in a highly competitive horse show."
Carlson says the competition was designed to test the riders as individuals. Unlike typical horse shows that place all the riders in the arena together, each competitor will enter the arena alone and execute the tests. Judges will observe, ask a series of questions afterward and give the rider feedback on his performance.
"In horse shows at the state level, there is often too much emphasis on the type of horse you're riding or how much silver is on your saddle," Carlson said. "Some kids in 4-H don't have a lot of money, so we wanted to create a competition that would give them a chance, too."
Membership in 4-H is open to youths ages 9 to 19. For more information, call the Orange County 4-H office at (714) 774-7120.