It all began with the horses: Local teen reflects on over a decade in 4-H

Courtesy photo – In her final year of 4-H, local teen Haley Fischer poses with Strawberry, the chubby, red mare who saw her through it all.

By Katie Harris

The Surveyor

It could’ve turned out any number of ways, but for Haley Fischer, convincing her parents to buy her her very own horse when she was 8 years old, having never so much as sat in a saddle before, was the start of a life devoted to all things horses: riding, training, showing and loving.

“I really wanted a horse when I was little,” said Fischer. “My parents said, ‘If we get you a horse you have to do something with it; it can’t just sit in the pasture.’ I met a girl in Sagebrush Riders 4-H Club and she got me into the club and taught me how to ride. That was my way of doing something.”

The horse’s name was Strawberry, and she was a handful. In Fischer’s words, rideable, but needing some work.

“She’s not a sensitive horse at all, so I had to work really hard on voice commands so I wouldn’t have to kick her so hard,” said Fischer. “She also had a really bad bucking problem when we got her, and getting her in the trailer was another big issue. She actually fell out of the trailer flat on her back once.”

Fast forward 11 years and a now 19-year-old Fischer will complete her final year in 4-H at the end of this month. After participating in the program every year 4-H allows youth to do so, she’s aging out this year, but she’s taking an entire childhood full of memories with her, many of them involving the chubby, red mare who saw her through it all.

“My favorite memory is the first horse show that I ever took Strawberry to,” she said. “They had this huge water trough outside the arena. I had Strawberry all saddled up and was in my show clothes, and Strawberry sticks her front feet in the water and starts splashing everywhere. I was all ready to show and she decided she was hot. Everyone was staring and laughing at me. That horse has personality.”

Strawberry redeemed herself the following year when, during the duo’s first time running poles together at fair, the mare practically ran the whole course herself, without needing any cues from Fischer. At one point the overly confident mare even started cantering the course, despite it being a walk-trot-only class.

As the years went on, Fischer continued to work with Strawberry, ridding her of bad habits and helping her reach full potential, while working to better herself as a rider at the same time.

“Joining IEA [Interscholastic Equestrian Association] helped my riding progress so much,” she said. “I took that and put it into my horse training with Strawberry. Every year I’d work on different things and come back a stronger rider. Last year we were in the top four in every class.”

Yet the rewards of horse ownership haven’t come without a fair share of disappointment. Fischer’s first experience with heartbreak came last year, when her newest horse, Whiskey, whom she’d had since birth and trained with the help of her dad, tripped on a cattle guard and had to be put down.

“He had broken his leg at the knee and the vet said we could do surgery but he would never have the same quality of life,” said Fischer. “He would have sat in a stall the rest of his life, and could never have barrel raced again, which was his thing; he was my barrel-racing horse.”

Faced with losing a horse she’d considered her baby, and just weeks before fair, Fischer made the choice to participate that year with her faithful companion, Strawberry. But in doing so, she had to share the little mare with another 4-H member who was leasing her, and her heart just wasn’t fully in it.

Then this year, what would have been Fischer’s final fair as a 4-Her, disaster struck again in the form of the Vesicular Stomatitis [VS] outbreak that kept nearly two-thirds of registered young riders home from the Larimer County Fair.

“I took Strawberry to fair and when the vet did the vet check he looked in her ear and saw one spot that was kind of iffy,” she said. “He swabbed her ear and it came back positive on the following Tuesday, which put our entire property on quarantine.”

Not only were Fischer and her three younger siblings unable to participate, but the co-op barn that her mom and 4-H club leader Kelly provided to kids in the club needing somewhere to house their animals fell under the quarantine as well.

“I was really upset that I couldn’t take Strawberry for my last year, after we’d worked really hard,” said Fischer. “But I felt more awful for the co-op kids and my siblings, like it was my fault they couldn’t go.”

Still, the veteran 4-Her wasn’t about to sit around and feel sorry for herself. With a maturity exceeding her years, she decided to put a positive spin on a difficult situation. With none of their own family members participating this year, the family parked their camper at the fairgrounds and spent the entire fair cheering on their fellow club members.

“I spent every day out there, helping the younger girls during horse week, and helping the kids showing lambs during livestock week,” said Fischer. “I’ve devoted 11 years of my life to 4-H and couldn’t just give it up, so I really just tried to help those younger kids have a better year.”

Though her time as a 4-H kid is wrapping up, the program that helped shape her childhood has already proven valuable in guiding her into adulthood. She recently accepted a job at a local horse-breeding facility grooming and teaching showmanship to the young horses; a position she describes as her dream job.

“4-H has really helped me,” said Fischer. “I was an officer almost my entire 4-H career, starting out as secretary and working my way up to president when I was 16. That really helped with my public speaking and interviewing skills. It’s also helped me build good relationships. I have so many connections that I wouldn’t have without 4-H.”

The dedicated young horsewoman isn’t done with the program just yet, either.

“I really want to come back next year and be a 4-H leader,” she said. “I want to help younger girls have the same experience I’ve had. I am really passionate about 4-H and want to share that passion with younger girls.”

When she’s not working with horses, or sharing her passion for the animals with the next generation of 4-Hers, Fischer can still be found spending time with the horse that started it all, a quirky, chubby red mare named Strawberry.

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