It Takes A Village

Last night, I read a great article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about a youth exhibitor at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. On Jan. 26, Josh Hass, of Alba, Texas, walked his Santa Gertrudis heifer into the arena like any other handler. He set her up, showed her to the judge and awaited the placings, collecting a red ribbon for finishing in second place. There were two clues there was something different about Josh, though. The first was his ever-present sunglasses; the second was the girl who never left his side. He needs both, because 16-year-old Josh is blind.

A sophomore at Alba-Golden High School, Josh lost his vision in an automobile accident in 2011, but he hasn’t let the disability slow him down. In addition to showing cattle, he is on his school’s dairy foods team, which has qualified for the state championships for two years in a row. He also enjoys fishing and hunting with the aid of laser-based technologies and his family and friends.

Emily Mullins was the friend who helped Josh show Maybelina, his heifer, in Fort Worth. She called it an honor to lead Josh around the ring. Robert Reynolds, the ag teacher who took Josh and eight other students to the Stock Show, told writer Punch Shaw, “I’m not saying we don’t think about it, but he is just part of what we do. He’s better for us than we are for him.”

Josh’s story is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. To see such character displayed in such a young man is heart-warming, and, I believe, partially a result of Josh’s involvement in the agriculture industry.

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard a mom or dad talk about getting a child involved in horses to “keep them out of trouble,” I’d be rich. Those of us within the equine industry know that horses are huge responsibilities. Those responsibilities are not only time-consuming, leaving kids with little free time to pursue troublesome activities, they are also character-building. Horses teach kids a myriad of life’s lessons, including respect, leadership, assertiveness, kindness, independence, gentleness, communication, companionship and love. In the competitive world of horse shows, there is one lesson horses can’t teach a child, and that is sportsmanship. We must teach them that.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a youth scholarship cutting, where I saw a fabulous example of a dad teaching his daughter sportsmanship. A young cutter, maybe 9 or 10 years old, rode into the herd on a seasoned gelding. She made a clean cut and was working her first cow fairly well, up until the cow darted to its right and gained the advantage. Horse and rider turned in a valiant effort, but lost the cow just the same. She cut another cow cleanly and worked it briefly before it, too, took off to its right. The young rider’s shaken confidence was visible as she watched the second cow return to the herd.

As she left the arena, her dad, who had been helping in the corner, rode next to her. I couldn’t hear his words, but they had to have been encouraging and kind, as a small smile crossed the girl’s face as her dad reached over and patted her on the back. It might have been a bad run, but a concerned dad made sure it was a good lesson learned. I have no doubt that young lady will grow up to be a good loser and an even more gracious winner.

I wish I could write those same words about all of the youth I see show at various cuttings, reinings and reined cow horse shows, but I can’t. Later in that same set, another youth rode into the herd. Her run also resulted in a low score after her horse quit on her first cow, costing her a shot at a placing. She finished the run, then, as the buzzer sounded, jerked her horse’s mouth as hard as she could. Pulling one rein, she harshly spun him in a circle, then jerked a bit more. The look on her face as she rode out of the arena was not one of disappointment, like the first girl. No, this teenaged rider was mad. Very mad.

I waited to see if one of her herd helpers would say anything to her. They did not. I waited to see if anyone would approach her as she dismounted. They did not. As quickly as the first girl learned that bad runs happen and you have to take them in stride, this girl learned that it was OK to take your frustration out on your horse and be a poor loser. The lesson she learned – the one nobody knew they were teaching her – is that bad sportsmanship is acceptable.

I have so much respect for many of the parents I meet in the horse industry who seem to hold their children to a higher standard. They teach them to say sir and ma’am, hold doors open, help their friends and work hard. They work hard to instill in their children politeness, good manners and, yes, sportsmanship. But sometimes, they need a helping hand.

They need trainers who don’t act like children themselves, punishing a horse for their own bad attitude. They need helpers who care about their child’s emotional score card, as well as their performance. They need positive role models and professionals who exhibit good sportsmanship.

An oft-quoted proverb states: “It takes a village to raise a child.” And for the most part, I think the agriculture “village” does an outstanding job. Josh and the young cutter are prime examples. But there are still those who need direction. They need to see us living the very lessons we are trying to teach them. Seeing an adult – trainer or otherwise – react poorly after a run makes bad behavior allowable in the eyes of a child, and that’s not OK.

Sportsmanship is a learned behavior, but it also needs to be practiced, by youth and adults alike.