Having learned horsemanship skills as a 4-H kid herself, Rita Hoch, director of Nexus Equine Rescue in Oklahoma City, OK, came up with the idea to connect young people interested in animal husbandry with horses at her facility.
Hoch’s brainchild, the 4-H Equine Makeover, was funded by ASPCA® Right Horse and paired 10 4-H youths with10 horses of differing breeds, training levels and health scores. Participants were challenged to use their skills to improve the lives of their equine partners over a 90-day period with the chance of winning $1,500 in scholarships and prizes.
To be eligible, youth needed be at least 13, active in Oklahoma 4-H and have participated in one of 4-H’s educational events. The matches were carefully made by the Nexus team based on interviews conducted with the participating youth.
Once the lead rope of each horse was handed over, participants were interviewed and asked to set individual goals of where they hoped to be at the 90-day mark.
In an event like the 4-H Makeover, there really are only winners. The horses win with new skills and usually a new home, and the youth are all winners.
Throughout the program, many participants kept journals, created videos, and chronicled their time with their horses.
On day 90, the youth-horse duos presented their progress to a panel of judges who evaluated each team based on their stated goals.
“The transformations were incredible. I was wowed,” said Hoch. “These kids really didn’t have too much of an idea of what type of horse they were getting, but they did exactly what we hoped they would and helped these horses build confidence and skills that would benefit them. The horses were healthy and happy, and the kids were having fun!”
Chloe O’Conner’s goal with her partner Red, a 20-something off-the-track Thoroughbred, was to build his trust and confidence. Red was surrendered to Nexus with a body score of two. By the time day 90 rolled around, Red returned to the makeover a few hundred pounds heavier with a slick, shiny coat, and a new talent Chloe taught him—painting!
“He’s a very good boy,” Chloe said. “We started working on his painting skills on day one, and he really came so far over these 90 days. He’s learned to trust again, put a lot of his weight back on, and he really just wants to please people.”
Zoe Page, 15, was paired with a two-year-old, solid-colored paint horse named Chloe who wound up at Nexus as an owner surrender. Chloe’s skills skyrocketed during the program thanks to Zoe’s knowledge of clicker and target training, and the fact that she took Chloe everywhere to get her used to different environments.
“I had clicker and target trained dogs, and I thought why not try it on Chloe,” Zoe said. “She’s young and really needed a confidence boost when I got her, and that training really helped.”
Going into day 90, Zoe’s parents told her she was going to have to give Chloe back because they simply didn’t have room. But in a surprise moment that brought tears to the crowd, Zoe’s father walked into the arena, and using the same poster boards Chloe used as props to explain her goals to the judges, revealed that Chloe would be going home with Zoe.
While 15-year-old Jacob Miller and his teammate Thelma had a slightly off-day when they presented themselves to the judges, his spirits were upbeat and his praise for Thelma never faded.
“She was in new surroundings today and her nerves got the best of her,” Jacob said. “That happens, but she is such a good horse and she is definitely coming home with me!”
Carrying a kiddy pool on her back and wearing a grass skirt, 4-year-old solid-colored Pony of the Americas, Aubrey, and her youth partner Makayla Hunt wowed spectators. The two showed off the trainable, tractable disposition of rescue horses with a freestyle program that included loping circles, jogging through a car wash of multi-colored tubes, crossing in and out of the pool, and dragging a sled. Throughout the program, the pair never bobbled, and their performance was enough to earn them top honors in the inaugural Nexus Oklahoma 4-H Equine Makeover. Makayla officially adopted Aubrey the day after the Makeover was complete.
"Anyone in any state can set this program up and collaborate with these great youth equestrians. I would just advise getting in touch with their extension office and opening up a dialogue. Communication is key and what worked here might need to be tweaked elsewhere, but it’s definitely a program that can benefit any rescue in any state.”