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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow How horses became OK 4-H projects

How horses became OK 4-H projects

4-H horse clubs owe their existence to Evelyn Anderson, who did the work and originated the first club in 1955 in Selah, Wash. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
4-H horse clubs owe their existence to Evelyn Anderson, who did the work and originated the first club in 1955 in Selah, Wash. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By LISA BRITTON

Of the Baker City Herald

Evelyn Anderson couldn't handle the tears.

In the early 1950s, she faced the sobs and heartache of her daughter, Carolyn, a young 4-H'er who dreaded parting with her livestock animals at the conclusion of each fair in Yakima, Wash.

"I never saw so many tears in all my days when she sent them to butcher," Anderson says. "I thought, ‘Gosh darn, that's no fun.' All they could think about was losing it."

She knew there had to be something better, a permanent project that lasted year-round and wouldn't end on a sad note.

Anderson, who spent part of her youth on a ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., knew a bit about horses and thought they would make the perfect 4-H project.

Unfortunately, horses weren't considered livestock, and didn't qualify as a 4-H entry, she says.

Today, relaxing in the shade on her front porch, Anderson still has a stubborn set to her mouth as she recalls the two years of paperwork it took to prove that horses were worthy 4-H projects.

But she couldn't be stopped, and her perseverance — she convinced the right people in Washington, D.C. — led to the first 4-H horse club in the United States, founded by Anderson in Selah, Wash., in 1955.

The concept caught on, and horse clubs cropped up in towns across America.

In 2003, of the 7 million 4-H'ers in the U.S., there were 411,202 youth enrolled in horse clubs.

Baker County currently boasts five such 4-H clubs that are active throughout the year, and 42 young equestrians will be competing in this weekend's Baker County Fair 4-H horse show.

The show begins Saturday at 8 a.m. at the fairgrounds arena and continues on Sunday.

Anderson's quest to include horses as 4-H projects began in 1953.

The family lived on five acres near Selah, Wash., in the Yakima valley.

"(Carolyn) wanted to be in 4-H, so we got her a beef and some sheep," says Anderson, 79, who moved to Baker City with her husband in March.

When she saw that every summer ended in tears as her daughter faced the inevitable auction, Anderson's solution was a year-round project and horses were her obvious answer.

The interest was there — Anderson knew many youngsters who wanted to belong to a horse club, especially those who weren't "well off" enough to join the junior posse riding club, which only allowed riders who owned a chestnut or palomino.

"And they had to have the right kind of western gear and come from families who could afford that kind of horse," Anderson says with a shake of her head.

So she had a willing group of equestrians.

There was only one problem: horses weren't recognized as a 4-H project.

"I mentioned it to the Extension office and they said they've never done that and they never will," Anderson says.

Horses weren't considered livestock because they didn't produce meat or milk for human consumption, and it was argued that the animals would actually cost the 4-H'ers money because they weren't sold at the conclusion of the fair.

Anderson was undeterred.

In 1953, she founded a 4-H club on this premise: each member raised a livestock animal to comply with 4-H guidelines and had a horse as a side project.

"Everybody had to have a darn goat or this or that," Anderson says.

But horses were their focus, and the club spent nearly every Saturday either riding to play days sponsored by the various local riding clubs or heading to the hills for a trail ride.

"We'd take day rides up into the sagebrush hills," Anderson says.

She even enrolled in horse husbandry courses at the local community college to brush up on her equine knowledge.

But Anderson still wasn't satisfied to keep horses as secondary projects.

"I knew they needed to do more and belong to something better," she says. "Two other leaders and I got together and decided this was ridiculous," she says.

So they sent brochures and record books to the Extension office, who in turn forwarded that information on to the head Extension office based in Washington, D.C.

"Took us two years — I never saw so many letters written in my life," she says.

Anderson said she had to prove that caring for and showing horses could be just as beneficial to 4-H'ers as livestock projects.

In fact, she thought a horse would be the ideal project to fulfill the goals of 4-H: instilling a sense of responsibility and character while "learning by doing."

"I needed a tool to use to raise good kids, to teach them how to be decent and good, how to behave and be loyal to each other," Anderson says.

Horses were finally approved as an acceptable 4-H project in 1955.

"We probably got word that summer, then started the club in September," she says.

They named it the "Red Hot Riders."

Her daughter, Carolyn Flynn, was one of the first members and now lives in Haines. The Anderson's younger daughter, Lynda, was also an active member as soon as she was old enough.

Though Anderson only hoped to lobby for horses in the state of Washington, she found out that wasn't an option.

"They said you can't do it for the state, it'd be for the whole United States," she says. "Then, oh man, talk about something taking off in the (Yakima) valley. After we got admitted as a club, that fall two or three more (horse) clubs started up. It caught on right away, everyone was waiting for this."

But the horses weren't really the focus of her club, she says.

"I didn't care if the kid had a 20-year-old horse, if it was fat, skinny or otherwise, as long as it could keep up," Anderson says.

What mattered most were the children.

"It wasn't the competition of the horses, it was the competition of the kids and them enjoying themselves," she says. "The horse wasn't going to be any good at all unless the kid was. I wanted a tool to use to help raise perfect kids — if not perfect, at least good."

Most members of the Red Hot Riders joined the club as early as they could (about age 9 or 10) and stayed with it until they graduated from high school.

Those too young to officially participate were dubbed "mascots."

She's still in contact with many of the 4-H'ers who she mentored during her 14-year stint as the leader of the Red Hot Riders.

"I know almost every town they're in," she says. "We had a great time and what gave me so much satisfaction was seeing the great kids that grew out of that club. I'm a great believer in people and horses."

 
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