Not just horsing around: Routt County 4-H program teaches confidence, responsibility |

Not just horsing around: Routt County 4-H program teaches confidence, responsibility

Lucy Wattles has a pep talk with her horse just prior to the start of the junior class during the 4-H Horse Show junior showmanship class. The horse show is just one of many 4-H events taking place this week as part of the Routt County Fair. (Photo by John F. Russell)

At 19 years old, quarter horse Jake is happy to make a new friend — that is, if that person offers him Teddy Grahams snacks.

Otherwise, Jake devotes his attention to 15-year-old owner Josee Smith of Hayden as the two take a rest Monday morning following the showmanship event at the 4-H Horse Show at the 107th annual Routt County Fair.

Jake weighs 1,100 powerful pounds, but he’s also loving, wrapping his neck around Smith’s shoulder. Then Smith steps back to demonstrate giving Jake the show command to “square.” The horse raises his head in attention, moves his legs to even spacing and straightens his legs — a position that required years of training to perfect.

The quarter horse and the teen horse woman wearing a “Dibs on the Cowboy” T-shirt are one of 31 pairs competing in this year’s horse show that is divided into the age groups 8-10, 11-13 and 14-18. Each pair is required to participate in the showmanship event, but the youth can choose a variety of other events ranging from gymkhana to roping to ranch horse versatility.

Josee Smith, left, of Hayden loves her quarter horse Jake, and previous owner Amber Elliott is happy Jake found a great new 4-H program partner. (Photo by Suzie Romig)

Participating in the 4-H horse program is time consuming, and taking care of a horse can be costly, yet the pursuit teaches the youth perseverance, responsibility, confidence, composure and communication skills, said Amber Elliott, one of three 4-H horse program leaders called superintendents.

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“It’s a team sport, and your teammate just happens to be an 1,100-pound animal and have a mind of his own. Things do not always go according to plan,” Elliott said.

That point is soon illustrated when a young fairgoer walks up, leading a calm, black and white horse and searching for the owner of the horse after it likely pulled loose from being tied to a trailer.

Steamboat Springs native Elliott was the previous owner of Jake, and the pair participated in 4-H horse events together for 11 years.

“It’s fun to see him doing what he loves. Jake wants to be in the show ring,” Elliott said.

Routt County 4-H horse program co-leader Amber Elliott watches 15-year-old Josee Smith of Hayden enter the show ring with quarter horse Jake, whom Elliott also showed with when she was a youth in 4-H. (Photo by Suzie Romig)

“It takes a lot of work to get these horses where they are now. All these kids have a relationship with their horse,” Elliott said.

The young trainers guide their horses with words such as “walk,” “over” or “back” or with kissing and clicking sounds.

When Smith’s turn comes with Jake, Elliott records a video and takes mental notes like an old pro that she shares with Smith afterward. Elliott and many other locals and parents help youth in the county learn valuable skills through 4-H, a youth development program run locally through the Routt County CSU Extension office. The four H’s stand for head, heart, hands and health, which are the four values that members work on through fun and engaging programs.

“I loved the program so much I just couldn’t stay away,” said Elliott, 21, who volunteers three to 12 hours a week during summer breaks from college.

Elliott was a beneficiary of the local CSU Extension Town Program that pairs interested youth who live within city limits with locals who own land and will host a horse, goat or other 4-H animals. Elliott’s host home for Jake was provided by Jim “Moose” Barrows for many years.

Lilly Venzke watches the action unfold during the 4-H Horse Show junior showmanship contest Monday morning at the Routt County Fairgrounds. (Photo by John F. Russell)

After her years working with and caring for 4-H animals as well as four years during high school observing or interning with local veterinarian Dr. Lee Meyring at Steamboat Veterinarian Clinic, Elliott is finishing her bachelor of science degree in animal science at Colorado State University and preparing to pursue a master’s degree in bovine reproduction. She then plans to attend vet school.

Fellow 4-H Horse Superintendent Kathy Yeiser, a volunteer leader for six years, also grew up in 4-H horse programs for a decade, and her daughter participated for eight years. Yeiser introduces 9-year-old Harlow Kuntz and her 17-year-old quarter horse Mister before they enter the ring for the youngest age group in ground showmanship. This is the second year Kuntz has participated in 4-H horse events with one of the family’s three horses. The 9-year-old said 4-H is teaching her how to take care of horses, and this year, Kuntz is participating in gymkhana, halter and western reining competitions.

Routt County resident Harlow Kuntz, 9, waits with family horse Mister before the youth showmanship competition. (Photo by Suzie Romig)

“There is a lot of personal responsibility to see a (4-H) project through start to end,” Elliott said, during breaks between radio communications helping to keep the show flowing. “They learn patience, and I see these kids change.”

To learn about fair events running through Aug. 22, visit

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