4-H Equestrians Learn Life Lessons
By Joyce Laird
The horse tosses his head and looks at the crowd. This definitely is not Willard, Missouri. He snorts and paws the pavement. The boy at his side pats his neck to calm him. Fifteen other young riders, all in matching costumes, are doing the same for their mounts.
It is January 20, 2005, in Washington, D.C., and the event that has this mounted drill team full of excitement is the Presidential Inaugural Parade. The Stars N Steeds Equestrian Drill Team was selected to be one of two Missouri groups in the parade, out of 1,500 that applied. The start signal is given and, in one motion, the young riders mount, adjust their flags and ride forward. As they pass the presidential podium, nobody beams with more pride than their coach standing on the sidelines. Almost a decade earlier, Lou Ann Biggers single-handedly started this grassroots 4-H equestrian group.
Near tragedy spurs action
A few years earlier, Biggers had seen two young riders almost come to tragedy during a flag ceremony at a local 4-H fair. “They smacked the horses on the rump and sent them into the arena at a gallop holding flags aloft,” she says. “About 100 feet into the arena, the horses were spooked by the loud music and noisy crowd. They turned and ran out of the arena with the little girls hanging on for dear life. It took six people to catch those horses. I’d been teaching riding for years, and I decided right then that I could prevent something like this from ever happening again. I got the fair manager to allow me to take charge of that part of the show.”
Biggers recruited four children who were taking riding lessons at her stable and her two children, Amber and Matthew; all were 4-H members. The small group started by simply getting the horses used to flags fluttering around their ears. Soon they added music.
“It’s not enough just to love to ride,” Biggers says. “Being part of a group takes work. There’s a lot to learn.” The group learned synchronized routines to two songs, Garth Brooks’ We Shall Be Free and the National Anthem.
At the 4-H fair the following year, the team rode into the arena and performed a synchronized routine and presented their flags. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Biggers says. “People came up and congratulated us on being such a good drill team. Then offers started coming in from shows and fairs asking us to perform. It was quite overwhelming.”
Word spread and more children asked to join. The group grew, and routines became more intricate. The group entered national competitions for equestrian drill teams in Texas and won the Color Guard Division, the Rodeo Division and took reserve place in the Theme Division.
Working as a team
To perform tight maneuvers, the horses must completely trust that their riders; Stars N Steeds horses do many things other horses won’t do because of this trust. It’s the same with working with different personalities and ages of the riders. “Some children are so insecure they can’t even look me in the face when they come here. But every child wants to be a part of something special. When they come into the group, I spend individual time with each newcomer,” Biggers says. “Also, everybody has to pull his or her own weight. There are no MVPs on a drill team. Everyone is equal, which helps insecurities disappear pretty fast.”
Each boy and girl is responsible for his or her own horse. They must learn how to communicate with the horse and also with other team members. “When you start seeing the relationship develop between horse and child, it’s amazing. It also gives the rider a great amount of confidence and self-esteem,” Biggers says.
Taking it to the schools
The next step was taking the message of teamwork, academic achievement and clean living to elementary, middle and high schools. “Once the message of our mission statement spread, schools started inviting us to perform and talk to their students,” she says.
At schools, the teams perform a 10- to 12-minute riding routine complete with flags. At the end of the demonstration, team members talk to students about making the right decisions in life and answer questions.
A bright future
Today, Biggers’ own children, who were 8 and 9 when she started the first team, are now 18 and 19 and have gone off to college. Many members of the original team are now teaching and mentoring younger riders in what has grown into four individual equestrian drill teams.
“I have some children who are just learning to ride,” Biggers says. “I have a few riding this year who just turned 8, and I have one little girl who just turned 5. They go all the way up to 18.”
Each young rider signs a paper that states they will abstain from drugs, alcohol and tobacco. They must also commit to doing their best in school and being role models for other young people. “These youngsters may not all continue to ride horses as they grow into adults,” Biggers says. “But my hope is that the teamwork and values they learn here will remain with them for the rest of their lives.”
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