Raise your hand if you will travel thousands of miles, cope with stressed-out youngsters and parents, sleuth out hands-on learning opportunities, seek out high-pressure situations and oh yes, do it all for free.
I met a man this weekend at the National Western Stock Show who has done just that for 21 years.
Ed Bader brought his Texas group of youngsters to Denver to compete in the 4-H judging contest against 16 other teams, all of whom were finalists at previous regional events. In team judging, 4-H’ers compete to see how well they place horse show classes against expert judges.
Ed’s team always makes top ten. Eventually, I would learn three of his secrets.
The first: “I’ve never yelled at a youngster during a competition,” explained Bader as he sat in the stands, writing down his own notes about horse show classes. “I’ve had to bite my tongue a few times when they’ve done something really stupid.”
The second: Build a team with a lot of depth. You never know when somebody will get sick.As we talked, we watched a Western Horsemanship class. The question with this group was a tough one: Which is a worse fault? The rider with the horse choked up on the bit, the rider executing the pattern on an excessively loose rein, the rider who missed stopping exactly at a cone, or the rider who did not complete the pivot? Go figure. Ed also worried about how his “kids” placed the Percheron halter class.
Earlier in the week, Texas sought out the draft horse experts at the Priefert booth. The Priefert hitch master went out of his way to help the 4-H’ers, and spent more than an hour analyzing his own Percherons’ conformation for the kids. By the time they were done, team members knew the nuances of Percheron halter judging.
“Well, if nothing else, they had a great learning experience,” I said. A nearby parent shot me a thin-lipped smile. At this level, many come for more than a great learning experience.
I discovered another interesting piece of trivia about Ed, considering his chosen passion. “I’ve never shown horses,” he said. We should note here that Ed did spend a lot of time on the rail watching his own children, now grown, show their 4-H horses.
The silence was thick as we surveyed the judging contestants -- seated spread out so they could not peek at each other’s score cards. Many 4-H’ers wore black or blue blazers and khaki pants, traditional garb for this event. The classes moved quickly. Top-quality horses and riders had volunteered to show, making it a spectator treat. One parent called the weekend one of the best-run judging competitions she ever attended.
The classes ended, and as if they were a sequestered jury, officials ordered contestants not to talk to anybody. The youth were ferried back to the hotel, where they prepared to present oral reasons. In competitive judging, well-spoken reasons can swing results.
It takes a long time to run calculations for 17 teams, and we would not know how Ed’s team fared for nearly 24 hours.
Late the next morning, we learned that true to form, the Texans made top ten and pulled out a third place overall finish. Colorado kept the trophy in the home court, coming in first.
Ironically, the Texas team’s Percheron placings helped sink them. At lease one team member “mangled” the class.
The problem? A matter of breed. The should-win Percheron, in the words of an official explaining placings, would have made a great Quarter Horse. When the competitors’ placings differ from the officiating judges, they often can gain points by adequately explaining their placings in the reasons room. Unfortunately, Percherons were not a reasons class so there was no opportunity for redemption here.
The less-than-perfect Western Horsemanship class we talked about in the stands didn’t help, either. It sent the Texans into eighth place overall for the performance classes.
But Ed has the formula down, and his team is young.
Oh, his final secret? “My forte is getting kids to do their best. I’ve never been to a contest where I’ve told kids to get out there and win,” said Ed. “I always tell ‘em you’ve got a good shot at winning. Now get out there and do your best.”
Ed is in it for the long haul. So are his kids.