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How New Incentives are Helping Share the Story of Our Horse Heritage with the Next Generation

From the moment Courtney Hammit could walk, she would follow her grandfather to the barn. By six, she had her first mare—“DeDe”—and was heading to horse shows. “She wasn’t a kid horse,” Courtney laughs.

Now, at 13, Courtney is on her third show horse, “Jake,” and is coming off of a big win in the 2020 Novice Saddle Series earlier this year. She’s won two ranch riding buckles on Jake, but talking to Courtney, you get the sense that’s not what makes her giddy over him. Jake makes her feel a way that can be hard to come by when you’re thirteen: understood. “He’s the sweetest little thing I’ve ever had,” she says. “He knows when you’re having a bad day—he’ll change his mood, and act a lot sweeter, to make sure I have a good ride.”

“Her attitude makes a big difference when she’s riding her horse.” says Courtney’s mom Trisha Hammit. It’s just one of the valuable life lessons she says her daughter has learned from competing. “She’s worked so hard, and she competes against herself every time,” says Trisha. “The first time she won a buckle...the look on her face...I’m pretty sure I started crying.”

It’s those same kind of valuable lessons learned that drives Jennifer Zoller to give back to industry through the State 4-H Horse Show. Zoller, an assistant professor and extension horse specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, says she started off as a young horse enthusiast too. “I was a very shy kid,” says the now confident and professional Zoller. “Working with horses and being around other people who had the same love for horses as I did as a kid gave me the confidence I have today.”

Which is not a coincidence: the basis of 4-H is to develop life skills in youth, and Zoller says that now, to be able to watch that happen—to follow a young person’s journey from 8 or 9 to when they graduate high school—is one of the most rewarding parts of her job. The icing on the cake is when she can help invest in them beyond high school.

Through Texas Quarter Horse Association grants from the Horse Industry Escrow Account (HIEA)—a result of HB 2463 that legislators passed in the 86th legislative session—the state 4-H Horse Show is able to offer a college scholarship to the highest placing participant showing a quarter horse in each of the six divisions of the state 4-H horse show. The scholarship isn’t just an opportunity for the winners to go further their education; it sends them out into the world as young advocates of 4-H and the Texas horse industry. And that, says Zoller, “is a blessing for all of us.”

As society continues to change, many Texan families are several generations removed from the hands on-experience of agriculture and horse riding. “Telling our story is vital to the survival of our industry,” Zoller says. And she sees young scholarship recipients as a key part of that, because they can speak to their generation on places like social media in a way that others can’t. “For these kids to experience the same opportunities that I experienced,” she says, “we have to be able to tell our story.”

As for Courtney, she dreams of one day getting to tell the horses’ story. “I want my career to be with horses,” she says. “I’m really into photography, so it’d be cool to be an equine photographer.”

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