For those who aren't familiar with 4-H, the idea of animal showmanship might seem a bit odd. You trot your animal out into a ring, a judge observes you and your animal, you walk around, pause and walk around some more. All of the sudden, a winner is picked.
It's an intense order of operations that sees thousands of kids across the nation compete each year, showing everything from cows and pigs to smaller animals like pigeons and rabbits. Despite urban density in the northern part of Clackamas County, it's no different here. 4-H youth from every corner of the county gathered in Canby last week to prove their skills at the 111th annual Clackamas County Fair, and among those were youth from West Linn.
For many of them, these competitions are the culmination of months, sometimes years, of practice in hopes of being crowned grand champion or even reserve champion. With that designation comes clout, a sense of accomplishment and even opportunities for scholarships in some cases. But what's most important during this week-long festival of animal husbandry and livestock education is the lessons learned about determination and character that really help build these kids into fine young adults.
Take Caitlin McCabe for example. The 16-year-old West Linn resident competed in several events at last week's 4-H competitions including showing pigeons, rabbits and cavies, or guinea pigs.
During the pigeon showmanship contest, McCabe outsmarted her competition to earn herself recognition as grand champion for 2017. The contest is basically a battle of who can present themselves and their pigeon best, as well as provide the most knowledge of pigeon anatomy, care and classification. Competing for her first year in the senior division, McCabe said she was slightly nervous heading into competition.
"You're up against people who have been doing this for their whole life, and I've only been doing this for a few years now so it's scary to get up there and wonder what they're going to ask, and if it will be enough," McCabe said. "When you find out it was enough, it's a huge relief to see that hard work has finally paid off."
McCabe credits her academic prowess to her involvement in 4-H, saying she wouldn't be nearly as good of a student if she hadn't been pushed to expand her knowledge through competing in 4-H.
"I think being in 4-H has given me a lot of life skills you can't get in the classroom or just with family," she said. "The biggest thing for me is that 4-H will teach you a lot about studying. I wouldn't be where I am today without the studying skills I've learned through my experience with 4-H."
For McCabe and many others, 4-H is very much a family affair. Her mother, uncles and older brother all competed in 4-H growing up. That connection has built a special bond between them, she says. It's a similar bond shared by the Shanklin family, friends of McCabe and also of West Linn.
The Shanklin girls, Carly and Kendall, take after their mother Kari, who competed in equestrian 4-H competitions when she was young.
The two girls, like McCabe, were all over the board in 4-H competition last week, including pigeon showmanship for 14-year-old Carly, who won grand champion in the junior division.
Carly also won grand champion for a painting she completed, and received state fair selection on a beautifully intricate pencil drawing she did of a horse.
Looking at her work, it's hard to believe a 14-year-old could be so detail-oriented, but realizing her father Dan is a high school art teacher, you can see where she comes by her talent.
On the other side of the coin, defeat can be just as educational as winning grand champion for these youths.
For Aylish Clayton, the sting of defeat isn't a familiar feeling. The 17-year-old from West Linn is one of the best at llama showmanship, and for the past few years, her llama Pax has always received a buckle denoting grand champion or reserve champion status.
Despite the pair's effort, that didn't happen this year, and instead Clayton got a new lesson from her 4-H experience: how to lose with pride and grace.
"Everything about it is tiring, and it's emotionally exhausting as well because we work so hard and clean our animals for so long," Clayton said. "We practice for a year to get in that ring for about 20 minutes."
That 20 minutes in Rosebrook Arena at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds is as intense a time period as you'll ever spectate. Competing in the senior division is no joke to these youth who have, in some cases, been preparing for this moment their entire lives.
Showmanship consists of several criteria, the main point being how well these kids handle themselves and their animals. Dressed to the nines in black and white, they trot out their llamas, put on a big smile and try their best to get their animals to cooperate with them. It's good practice for a future in animal husbandry or breeding livestock, but the lessons learned here are bigger than any one competition.
"(4-H has) taught me how to take care of a home, how to raise and take care of animals and how to be a good sport," Clayton said. "(Most of all) it's taught me to be very thankful. I've met all my best friends through 4-H."
Although she didn't win a buckle this year, Clayton walked out of Rosebrook Arena last week with her head held high and sights on continuing her 4-H career in the coming years.
The West Linn High School junior said she plans to return to the fair next year in hopes of redeeming herself and her Pax in the process.
Although she loves animals and currently works at a local veterinary clinic, Clayton's educational aspirations lie in human medicine. She plans to continue her education post-high school to become either a pediatric surgeon or a neonatal intensive care unit nurse.
Clayton says she encourages kids who are curious about 4-H to come see for themselves what it's all about, and to not be afraid to fail at doing something you love.
"You have a huge support system of people here who are constantly giving you support and love," she said. "It's impossible to go into the ring and not feel that support. The worst that goes wrong is your animal acts up and you deal with it. It's all about you and how you handle yourself."