Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Heather Smith Thomas – Notes from Sky Range Ranch: My 4-H Experiences

Ginger and me (on the left) and my friend Marilyn on Trinket, ready for costume class

When I was in seventh grade, in 1957, a ranching couple in our community started the first 4-H horse club in Idaho, and I was part of their first group of horse-crazy kids. Jerry and Velma Ravndal were longtime horse breeders and fervently dedicated to the ideals of good horsemanship. They had no children of their own but wanted to help young people learn more about horses. When they “retired” from cattle ranching and moved closer to town to concentrate on breeding good Arabian horses, they started a club that became the 5-H Wranglers—the fifth H stood for horses.

At that time I was riding and training Ginger, the filly who came with our ranch, and I used her for my first 5-H project. We did a lot of classroom work that first winter, learning about the origin and development of horses and breeds, color and markings, conformation and parts of the horse, unsoundnesses, safety around horses, proper use and care of tack (and how to take apart our saddles and clean them), proper terminology, keeping horses healthy, feeding them, and so on. Later that spring, when we started bringing our horses to the meetings, we learned how to groom them, take care of their feet, tie proper knots, mount properly, and ride correctly—learning how to communicate effectively with our horses. We also taught them to longe, tie, lead properly, and show at halter.

My little brother Rocky used Ginger for 4-H.

At the end of the year, we put on a horse show, which included a costume class in which we showed our horses in pairs. My friend Marilyn and I rode our mares, Ginger and Trinket, bareback with jaw ropes, wearing “Indian” costumes we made out of burlap (to simulate animal hides), decorated with feathers, magpie claws, rattlesnake rattles, and painted seashells.

The second year my little brother Rocky joined the club and took Ginger for his project and I used Nell (a young Thoroughbred mare I’ll tell you more about next time). I also bred our ranch mare Scrappy to Ravndal’s Arab stallion El Khamis for my first mare-and-foal project. El Khamis was a wonderful little horse that Jerry rode to help other ranchers work cattle. Jerry could rope calves by the heels for branding or doctoring, and the stallion would hold the rope tight, all by himself, while Jerry was dealing with the calf on the ground. El Khamis was at ease doing all sorts of things, whether working around cattle, packing a deer during hunting season, participating in a noisy parade, or carrying a child on his back. He was a very smart, athletic, and versatile animal, and many local ranchers bred their mares to him. There are still a lot of part-Arab ranch horses around our county, descendants of that wonderful stallion.

Scrappy and foal; my mare-and-foal project

Training Khamette as a three-year-old

The next year my first foal, Khamette, was born—a nice bay filly. I worked with her from the time she was a month old. She and Scrappy lived on a mountain pasture with our other horses until school was out for the summer and I had time to train the foal. I taught her to lead, tie, pick up her feet, and so forth and took her to the fair that fall. Not having a horse trailer, I rode Scrappy and led the filly along the edge of the highway, the entire 14 miles to town. Khamette always was nice to lead, and in her later years each of my kids learned to ride on her as we rode range for long hours, with me leading her from my own horse.

Shoeing Khamette, as part of my 4-H horseshoeing project

Riding Khamette sidesaddle at the Ravndals' place

I used Khamette, then a two-year-old under saddle, for my 4-H yearling project. As I waited for her to grow up, one of my other 4-H projects was training Alla Tabu, a young Arabian gelding owned by the Ravndals. This was good background and a learning experience in riding a green horse, to help prepare me for training Khamette.

The Ravndals were a wonderful influence on my life and on the lives of many other 4-H kids. Velma was a stickler for proper horse care and horsemanship. As a young person in Nampa, Idaho, during the 1920s, she and a friend learned advanced horsemanship from a young cavalry officer, whom her friend later married. Then in the 1950s and ’60s, Velma taught us 4-H kids proper military seat and good horsemanship from the cavalry manual Horsemanship and Horsemastership, published in 1935. Some of us borrowed English saddles, taught our horses to jump, learned proper jumping form, and also studied dressage. A couple of us learned to ride sidesaddle as well.

Another project I accomplished during my high school years was horseshoeing. Jerry Ravndal was a farrier as well as an excellent horse trainer, and when I started shoeing our family ranch horses, he took me under his wing and gave me some good instruction.

Khamette and me on the cover of Farm Journal

During those years I started writing a few articles for horse magazines and farm publications, along with the stories I was selling to children’s magazines. In 1960 I sold one of my first major articles to Farm Journal, telling about our 5-H horse club. It was published in May 1961 and featured me and Khamette on the cover.

My years in the 5-H Wranglers helped further my education and dedication as a horse person and cemented my desire to spend the rest of my life with horses. I made a commitment to learn all I could about how best to care for and handle them (always putting the welfare of the horse first) and then to share my knowledge and experience with others by writing about them. Thus were the beginnings of my lifelong love affair with horses and sharing this passion with others.

To be continued. . . .

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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