While equine makeovers are all the rage these days, most are for professional trainers or adults with the experience and facilities to work with unhandled Mustangs, for example. But the Nexus Equine Oklahoma 4-H Makeover Challenge program that debuted in 2019 is changing all that.
Benefits of the Makeover
“We feel very strongly about partnering with the industry and giving them resources and support for the horses within their respective disciplines,” says Rita Hoch, CEO of Nexus Equine, an equine non-profit organization in Edmond, Okla. “I felt like this was a way we could demonstrate our ability to partner and to collaborate by creating an event that would include kids from Oklahoma 4-H.”
The innovative program takes 10 4-H Club members and pairs them with 10 horses from Nexus Equine in a way that allows the 4-Hers to increase their horsemanship skills. Hoch sees it as a win-win situation for both the horses and the kids: The kids have an opportunity to further develop their horsemanship skills, and the horses also learn new skills, and along the way, become more adoptable.
“As a result, we think this program promotes development in a variety of ways,” says Hoch. “The Makeover provides the kids and horses, who might not otherwise have an opportunity to do so, with an extraordinary chance to succeed.”
At the program’s inception, everyone involved expressed excitement. Because the ideas encompassed by it were so new, it required a stretching of boundaries to get it off the ground.
How It Works
For the good of the kids, sponsors began to come on board as things began to take flight. For example, the National Reining Horse Association provided belt buckles for the participants, Bluebonnet and Kool Speed provided feed, and Heritage Place loaned their facilities for free. This event was made possible by the Arnall Family Foundation.
Participants are selected for the program based on an application process that details their past experiences and helps to ensure that they are paired with an appropriate horse. In turn, the horses chosen to participate must be good-minded animals who have received a minimum of 30 days training under saddle prior to taking part in the program.
The participants compete only against themselves.
“We felt like this was the fairest way to do this,” explains Hoch. “On day one, they show up and pick up their horse. They learn a little bit about him. They talk to the staff and the judges about some goals they can set for themselves to work with the horse.”
Once they get home, the participants do have a couple of weeks into the contest to change their original goals. The horse-and-participant pairs return in 90 days to demonstrate their progress to the same panel of judges.
“The judges are actually judging which kid made the most progress with their horse, which allows every kid the exact same opportunity,” Hoch adds.
In addition to their work with the horses, the makeover also includes an educational component. Participants are asked to create a video and write an essay about their experiences, which are included as part of the contest.
Accessible and Rewarding
Contestants temporarily adopt their horse for $10 at the beginning of the contest, and the vast majority permanently adopted them at the program’s conclusion. Needs for participation are minimal, with the kids only being asked to provide hay.
The horses come microchipped, and all are up to date on farrier work, have had their teeth floated and have been vaccinated. Other needs that may arise within the 90-day period are covered by Nexus Equine. In addition to belt buckles and other sponsor-provided prizes, the winning participant receives a $1,500 scholarship.
McKayla Hunt and Chloe O’Conner were two of the 2019 participants with horses named Aubrey and Big Red.
“Aubrey started with not wanting to load into a trailer,” says Hunt, the 2019 winner. “It took three or four people to catch her. Now she’ll trot up to me when I call her name.”
“I can’t even think of words to describe it,” says O’Conner, another program participant from the inaugural makeover. “It’s such an amazing opportunity, because whether I win or lose, I’m still going home with the connections I have made with Nexus and a great horse.”
For the Future
As the program continues to evolve, its leaders are seeking ways to involve different types of kids. One way is expanding the program to include participants who, for example, are only interested in in-hand work with their partner horse.
This has allowed 4-H members who might not be ready to work with a horse under saddle or who don’t have a preference for under-saddle work a broader opportunity to participate. It’s also allowed more horses to be included, such as those without under-saddle work in their skill set.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 program has been postponed, but is by no means over. It will pick back up in full swing in the spring of 2021 with another excited group of 4-H members and horses.