Texas A&M AgriLife Extension leads 4-H Equine Ambassador Program to train future leaders
By Olivia Norton
Texas A&M Agrilife Extension invited 25 of the most promising equine driven 4-H students in Texas to Gainesville this July to try their hand at becoming an equine ambassador by completing a five-day program that allowed students to walk through and participate in each facet of the equine industry. The Equine Ambassador Program was introduced in 2012 with the help of Dr. Dennis Sigler, professor and Extension horse specialist, and Teri Antilley, Extension horse program specialist, in response to the popularity of a similar successful program, the Livestock Ambassador Program. In 2008, Extension personnel around the state noticed a need to encourage volunteer and leadership opportunities among teenage students and that remedy came from the development of the Livestock Ambassador Program. A small group of students were chosen to be immersed in an intense, high impact experience that left them with more knowledge and passion than could have been anticipated.
“Immediately there was immense response by students willing to take the challenge to become advocates for livestock and agriculture. Similarly, the idea spread and we decided the same could be done with equine,” Sigler said.
Dr. Billy Zanolini, Extension 4-H and youth development specialist, has been involved with each program since the beginning. “4-H programs were in need of a way to utilize youth volunteers. Putting the students in a position where they will be held to a standard of leadership and excellence in their field does just that.”
The Equine Ambassador Program sought only the brightest 25 4-H students with an affinity for the equine industry through an application process. Once chosen, these students were sent to Lone Oak Ranch in Gainesville for five days where they were surrounded by industry professionals with experience in every aspect of the equine platform. Guest speakers cover topics such as basic horse management, nutrition, conformation and selection, breed associations issues, horse farm and horse industry business tours, leadership training, current topics affecting the industry, communication, organization and teamwork skills. The training didn’t stop there, however. “In order to become an official “Equine Ambassador”, the students had to pass a rigorous written test at the end of the program,” said Sigler. “They must then log a minimum number of hours over the next year in service and educational activities for their local 4-H clubs, their counties or for the horse industry.”
While the in-depth knowledge gained by each student is enough to make an impression on each of their equine industry paths, perhaps the most notable impact the program has on each student is the opportunity to become instrumental in educating their peers. “It’s easy to see the transformation students make through this program as we train them to become leaders,” Sigler said. “They are able to take ownership of the information they have learned and take it back to their county clubs apply it to their own future and the betterment of the equine industry as a whole.” With each passing year, the expectations of these ambassadors are growing. Not only do they have a responsibility to their county, but they are now viewed as advocates for the entire equine industry.
“Through this program, we have found new ways to give each ambassador a better sense of responsibility and leadership within their county,” Zanolini said “but as the program grows we would like to further credit those high achieving students by giving them opportunities state-wide, nationally and even internationally”
The Equine Ambassador Program will move to Texas A&M University in College Station in 2014. The move is intended to provide a stronger connection between ambassadors and the continuation of their learning experience by taking advantage of facilities and faculty. Texas A&M Agrilife Extension specialists make providing new and exciting opportunities for the future ambassadors a priority of the program, Sigler said.