Small horses, big impact

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Lynn Greene | August 27, 2017

ELKHORN — Just ask any member of the Walworth County 4-H Driving Club and they will explain — you don't have to go big to make a big impact. Many of the kids in the horse and pony project work with steeds that are one-fourth the size of a quarter horse or one-tenth the size of a Belgian or Percheron.

Size doesn't matter when it comes to the level of commitment required for this project. Dedication does, and these kids have it, practicing three or more times a week in many cases.

The goal, of course, is to demonstrate what they've learned at the Walworth County Fair.

The driving program started with Will Swierenga 26 years ago.

“I was always addicted to horses,” explained Swierenga, who grew up on a farm where the horses did the work.

When Swierenga married his wife, Nancy, they acquired their first pony. After graduate school for counseling, he took a $2 an hour job mucking out stables for Roy Kline, who was active in harness racing.

“I knew I wanted to do something more with bigger hitches; I already had the speed,” Swierenga said.

He started with a Welsh pony but could never have predicted where that would lead him and Nancy.

“A lady approached Nancy in church one day and asked if I would take on a student who wanted to learn how to drive, so that's how it started — with one student,” he said.

It grew from there until one year the number of participants reached into the 50s. It's not that big anymore, probably in part due to the recession of 2008. The driving club is open to any 4-Her in Walworth County who wants to learn how to drive. Some have their own mini horse or pony; others borrow or lease one.

Swierenga continues to work with the more experienced students like Alexandra Rullman, who just came off the Boone County Fair where she competed in the 8-horse hitch.

“He taught me everything I know about driving with finesse,” Rullman said.

Another student of Swierenga's, Abby Gentele, also competed at the Boone County Fair.

“The eight-up is one of the tougher classes; that's a lot of horses to control,” Gentele said. “With the multiple hitches you have to figure out how to work all those lines.”

There is a lot to consider when assembling a team of horses. For multiples, you have to decide which animal will be the leader — the horse or horses out front. They're the ones that initiate turns. The wheelers are the horses closest to the cart or wagon. They need the most strength because they do most of the pulling and act as the brake when stopping. Those in the middle have to be patient and steady.

Gentele, who entered the single, unicorn, tandem, four abreast, six-up and eight-up at the Boone County Fair, said you want to pair up horses that have a similar style and rhythm. She couldn't have entered all those classes without a lot of help.

“We're all family here,” she said. “We help each other out.”

Kathleen and Jeff Markham pitched in to help with the program after their two kids, JJ and Josie, participated. They learned at Swierenga's place in Darien.

“We had one mini that we led around, but that was it; we didn't have any equipment,” Kathleen Markham said.

The Markhams now help beginning drivers get started. Josie, 23, still helps out with the program.

“If someone wants to get in the program, they can start with the horseless horse project to learn about horses and ponies or they can just start in the driving program,” Markham said. “If they don't have their own horse, they can borrow one or summer lease one. We make sure the animals get here (at the Markhams' farm) for our meetings.” 

Jeff Markham is the chairman of the horse and pony committee for Walworth County. The committee consists of adult and youth coordinators who put on educational seminars and fun shows.

To be involved in the driving program, students need to attend two mandatory meetings in the spring. 

“That's where we find out what they have to work with,” Kathleen Markham said. “If they need a horse or pony, we match them up with an available one.” 

Walworth County competitors use the mid-August Boone County Fair — the largest county fair in Illinois — as a tuneup. There is no separate category for youth competitors so there is a lot of competition.

Swierenga served as the emcee for the Boone County event, so he had no time to worry about his young students. They were in good hands with help from fellow competitors and adult volunteers. 

“We took 80 head,” Markham said. “Plus all the carts, wagons, tack and feed.”

“With that many people and horses, my big worry is wrecks,” Markham said. “We want to keep everyone —  people, horses and ponies — safe.”

They did keep everyone safe. Most of the participants had some experience showing, but there were two new kids who had to present their horses to a judge for the first time.

“Everyone did really well,” Markham said.

And Swierenga agreed it was a good showing.

“Horses take a lot of dedication, but these kids all put in the time and it showed,”  Markham said.

Next up: the Walworth County Fair. The horse/pony/miniature horse show starts at 8 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 27, in the horse arena at the fairgrounds.



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