15 4-H kids practice horsemanship working cows

SHERIDAN — A beautiful woman disguised in puffed and padded sleeves, patterned with outrageous colors and paired with a helmet with a comb on top holds an axe by her side. Inés Suárez is a Spanish conquistador arriving to the Americas in 1537 in search of her husband, who left Spain in hopes of a future in the New World.

After filling the role of a true Spanish conquistador, Suárez adopted the Spanish horsemanship practices. She began breeding and hosting some of the first formal teachings on her small piece of land to anyone who deemed themselves diligent enough to learn. Suárez trained horses so sensitive to her signals, they were known as “hair-triggered” or “whisper” reined horses.

Working cow, once a form of training horses for war, has now become famous for its elegance, precision and difficulty with working cattle. Fifteen Sheridan County 4-H members met at the Sheridan County Fairgrounds to practice the time-tested horsemanship skills taught by Paul VanDyke and Chad Justice on Tuesday.

“It’s significant in this day and age that we hold the tradition of handling stock with finesse and skill level that the Spanish conquered North America with, ” 4-H volunteer Paul VanDyke said.

“It’s an adrenaline rush that very few people can achieve effectively because it takes someone truly handy,” Paul VanDyke, a cowboy and father said. “It’s an appreciation for the art and it’s significant in this day in age to hold the tradition of handling stock with finesse and skill level that the Spanish conquered North America with, but if I talk too much about that the kids glaze over because they’re here to get to work.”

As the Wyoming sky turned black and the wind started to blow, children ages 8 to 19 saddled up and trotted around the arena ready for business. Modern day working cow horse competitions are split into three parts: reining pattern, herd work and fence work.

Horses and their riders compete based on accuracy, timing, responsiveness and their ability to handle a single cow into a herd and discreetly ‘cut’ it from the herd.

“This is definitely their favorite event and we see the best of the best here,” said Heidi Justice, co-superintendent of the horse program. “They’re dedicated and show up to every single practice because when it comes to working cow horse, it’s like a job to do. They take these skills home to the ranch because it’s practical.”

Working cattle is a high-pressure situation whether it’s for practice or not. The atmosphere the two cowboys have created is nothing like a corral at home.

There’s no discreet cuss words spilled out of anyone’s mouth as a cow gets by them, there are no tears of frustration. Justice and VanDyke ride with ease and precision, making it clear this is not a hobby — this is the cowboys’ livelihood.

“I’ve seen Paul’s quality of work through his kids, his sale horses, and I think he has an ability to bring down this complex thing to a basic level for kids of all divisions to understand and to be able to do the leg work,” Katie Bammel, a senior horseman from Lucky 7 4-H club, said. “Between him and Chad it’s so individualized that I feel comfortable coming even if I might be the oldest one here.”

The two men became involved when their children started the horse program three years ago with a little persuasion from their wives, who are active in 4-H leadership. VanDyke and Justice have invested more than just their Tuesday nights because they are passionate about the youth.

“Kids are the future,” Chad Justice said.

Horsemanship practices are hosted at the Sheridan County Fairgrounds every Tuesday from 6-8 p.m. Any child with a horse is invited regardless if they are a member of 4-H.