Each Friday, HN teams up with Ovation Riding to spotlight an individual or organization doing good work in the horse world. Today, we salute the Westernaires, a drill team based in Jefferson County, Colorado.
This week’s nominee:
Reader Marybeth Graeff nominated the Westernaires for a Standing Ovation: “Westernaires is a non-profit organization in Jefferson County that teaches youth about horses and teamwork and gives many kids the ability to ride who would not otherwise get the chance. They are a nationally-recognized drill team organization, one thousand members strong — and it’s all kids.”
We caught up with Westernaires director Glen Keller to learn more.
Keller describes the Westernaires as an “old-time organization” that started in 1949, originally a youth program for kids and their horses when Jefferson County was mostly rural. The focus was on precision mounted drill. Today, with Jefferson County growing much more urban, only about 20% or less of the enrolled youth have their own animal. Regardless of this shift, Westernaires continues to grow and thrive, counting one thousand youth members all from within the county, expanding its offerings to include not only precision mounted drill but trick riding, Roman riding, liberty work and vaulting.
The Westernaires is run entirely by volunteers: there’s one paid position for the caretaker, who maintains the 35-acre facility adjacent to the Jefferson County Fairgrounds and takes care of the 200 horses. Keller estimates the number of volunteers to range from 350 to 500 depending on the time of year and what events are going on. Membership costs are minimal for the youth involved, which allows anyone to participate regardless of economic status.
Each autumn, the Westernaires put on an annual performance: a two-hour long show of mounted drill and various “extracurricular” performance skills. The organization holds four performances for the annual show, with income from tickets funding the Westernaires for the rest of the year. The highest levels of performers also travel around the country to put on special shows as well, with the National Western Stock Show one of their banner events each year.
What’s most important to the Westernaires is the tight set of rules and values that its members must follow; key among these rules is a zero-tolerance policy for drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Combined with the less-quantifiable values that horsemanship and hours of practice teach, the organization has been recognized as a prime player in keeping the youth of Jefferson County out of trouble.
A day in the life of the Westernaires includes a carefully-crafted arena schedule: the property includes three outdoor and four indoor arenas, and Keller estimates that five to seven of the arenas are in use every hour of the day. The first classes start at 8 AM, with students arriving as early as 6:30 to start feeding and prepping horses for practice. Members are required to practice once a week, with most of those members riding a Westernaires-owned horse. About 70 of the 200 horses are adopted mustangs; the upper-level horses for the high-speed precision performances are mostly Quarter horses.
Members can join at age 9, working in the Blue Division to learn basic horsemanship and equitation. Riders progress through the White Division and then the Red Division for precision mounted drill; if riders own their own horses they can choose to focus on a specialty skill such as trick or Roman riding. The specialty training is limited by the available horsepower, though Keller does what he can to ensure that deserving members get access to horses: he gives one horse away annually to a member. “Every now and then you get a kid who has to turn the horse down, but usually they find a way to keep it.”
While we as observers only see a swirl of color in an unfurling flag and a high-paced, flawless-looking performance, for the youth members of the Westernaires, each show is a culmination of sacrifice, hard work, patience and dedication. The skills and values they develop on the backs of horses will stay with them for life.
To learn more about the Westernaires, check out the organization online at www.westernaires.org.
Many thanks thanks to Ovation Riding for their support of both Horse Nation and individuals and organizations that are doing good work in the horse world. If you know someone who deserves a Standing Ovation, we would love to recognize them in a future post. Email the name of the person or organization along with a message about the good work they do to [email protected]. Photos/videos are always welcome, and include a link to their website if applicable.