CORVALLIS, Ore. – M’Kenzie Kirchner was filled with excitement as soon as she heard the word “Oregon.”
“I thought it was Jessica,” Kirchner said, recalling the moment that she thought her Oregon 4-H Youth Development horse judging teammate Jessica Sperber had won the conformation class at last fall’s Eastern National 4-H Horse Roundup. “She was on fire all weekend.”
Indeed, Sperber had done well, finishing third overall at the annual contest held at the Kentucky Fair & Expo Center in Louisville, Ky., in early November. But in this particular class, Kirchner was the winner. She beat the second-place finisher by a single point.
Kirchner was surprised by the announcement because she hadn’t felt confident after spending the previous day judging from early in the morning until early evening. But she was proud to bring home the award for Oregon 4-H, a program of the Oregon State University Extension Service. In the conformation class, competitors judge and articulate the animal’s physical structure.
“It was a very exciting experience to represent my state in a national competition,” said Kirchner, a 2021 graduate of Newport High School.
The Eastern National 4-H Horse Roundup was one of two national competitions last fall in which Oregon 4-H’ers competed. The National 4-H Poultry and Egg Conference – also held in Louisville in November – features contests ranging from poultry judging to chicken and turkey barbecue.
Three team top-10 finishes
At the horse roundup, Oregon 4-H performed well, finishing second in horse bowl – similar to high school quiz bowl – third in horse judging and 10th in hippology, a category in which 4-H’ers show their collaborative knowledge and understanding of the horse family including science, conformation, performance and husbandry
Four members of the horse bowl team – all from Clackamas County – finished in the top 10 individual standings: Kaydilayne Weikel (fourth), Jasmine Fairchild (fifth), Joie Ellington (sixth) and Theo Nunn (10th).
Bailey Vernam of Enterprise finished ninth overall in public speaking. Rachael Vorster of Benton County finished 10th overall in hippology. Kirchner, Sperber and Desi Hanson, both from Deschutes County, and Devin Schreiber (Wallowa County) comprised the horse judging team. Kirchner and Hanson finished eighth and ninth, respectively, in the reasons category, which is scored based on how well the competitors articulated how they judged the class.
Horse judging began before dawn in a “very cold outdoor arena,” said Debi Warnock, 4-H faculty in Wallowa County who served as a chaperone on the trip. The competitors were divided into groups, then given scorecards. They observed eight classes, including performance in different styles. After they turn in their scorecards, they are given a break to go over their notes. Then they have to orally present their reasonings behind their scores. They can’t talk to other competitors or use notes in their presentations.
“They pay attention to how the rider and horse work together, and they’re also learning the basics of what it takes to find a good horse,” Warnock said.
Kirchner fell in love with horses at the age of 8, when she started riding at a friend’s barn in her hometown of Toledo, which is seven miles east of Newport. She saved her money and bought her own horse, Macy, who she competed with in 4-H showmanship and the Oregon High School Rodeo Association.
Now a freshman at Montana State University, Kirchner said her key to horse judging has been “a lot of experience and watching a lot of horse events.”
“It’s a build-up of knowledge and seeing a lot of horses,” she said. “But this past year, it totally changed for me.”
“It” was Kirchner’s introduction to Holly Silvey, an Oregon 4-H alumnus from Deschutes County who began coaching the state horse judging team in 2021. Silvey competes on the horse judging team at Texas A&M University. She started judging in the ninth grade and earned a horse judging scholarship to attend Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College.
“Holly knows what words and phrases judges are looking for,” Kirchner said. “She helped us advance our judging and be so much more methodical. You want it to all flow from head to tail. One phrase I have memorized is about muscling in the horse. When I’m looking at its hindquarter, I would say, ‘This horse has a long hip, which allows for a more carry down of muscle into the gaskin.’ That’s definitely lingo.”
At the exact time the horse judging team was competing in Louisville, Silvey was competing in a collegiate contest in Oklahoma.
“I was really nervous for myself, and I was really nervous for them,” she said.
The next day, Sperber called her with the good news.
‘She was so excited,” Silvey said. “I just started bawling. I didn’t even know my own contest results, nor did I care at that point.”
Silvey, who is from LaPine, showed rabbits and horses in Deschutes 4-H. She also competed for Bend High School’s equestrian team. She competed at the Eastern National 4-H Roundup as a high school senior in 2017. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she coached the team last year exclusively on Zoom.
“I love coaching because I love students,” she said. “The 4-H program has given me everything in my life. I feel like it’s my duty to give back.”
‘Getting’ the audience
There’s a moment when she’s giving a speech in which Bailey Vernam knows she’s grabbed the attention of the audience. In her speech at the horse roundup, that point in time came when she got to the part about the liver.
The topic of her speech was horses in mythology. About six minutes in, she began describing the kelpie, a mythical Scottish water horse. In some versions of the legend the horse, which has adhesive-like skin, tricks wanderers to get on its back. Once the rider is trapped by its sticky skin, the horse dives into the water and drowns its victim.
Then it tears apart the body, leaving only the liver floating in the water.
“When you say something like that, watching their faces react, I’m like, ‘OK, I got you.”
Vernam’s talk was recorded and can be watched on YouTube. A senior at Enterprise High School, she said she’s always felt comfortable speaking in front of a group, so she started doing illustrated talks, which use visual aids. She said that while public speaking is integral to 4-H, it’s not as well known to the general public.
“At the Oregon State Fair, there’s not a whole lot of people who go to watch the speeches,” she said.
The week before Thanksgiving, Oregon 4-H’ers from Deschutes, Benton and Linn counties competed at the National 4-H Poultry and Egg Conference. The avian bowl team finished sixth. It won its first first-round match against Kansas, then lost to Minnesota and then eventual champion Alabama.
The team was comprised of captain Luke Milburn (Linn County), Ace Bozievich (Benton County), Julia Weldon (Benton), Trinity Serafin (Benton) and Trinity Reistad (Benton). Milburn also competed as an individual in the poultry judging competition and finished fifth.
“It was an amazing trip,” said avian bowl coach Jennifer Milburn, Luke’s mother. “The kids were phenomenal. It was the first time we went to compete as a team, so we wanted to learn and just have fun. We had never seen anything like it. It was so fast. We were really happy with the outcome and the whole experience.”