Genny Olmstead traces her love of horses back to the roots of her life.
Olmstead grew up on a 50-acre farm near Raymond, Wash., with six brothers, one sister, horses, cattle, chickens and a produce garden.
“My mother canned,” she said. “She did 4-H for a couple of years, so I took a couple of years in cooking with 4-H. I didn’t care for that. My brother did 4-H horses.”
So it was understandable that when folks in Washington County asked her to lead a 4-H club 40 years ago, it was not a cooking club, but a horse club. And she has done just that throughout those 40 years, for the past 16 in The Dalles, working out club members and their equine companions at the Fort Dalles Riders Club.
Working with horses and the young people who love them is part and parcel of the Western world she loves.
“When I’m reading books I read horse books and I like Western history — anything Western,” she said. “My brother taught me to shoot and I’ve shot guns since I was 10 or 11 years old.”
She also likes leather craft and three years ago started a second 4-H club on leather working.
Olmstead is a self-proclaimed tomboy and used to tag along with her dad and brothers on hunting trips.
“I went with them, but I never bought a license until I married my husband,” she said.
Olmstead’s love of all things Western is evident in her dress. Her black cowboy hat is something she warns club members not to trifle with. It is firmly in place during a practice in preparation for the Wasco County Fair horse starting Sunday, Aug. 11 (see related sidebar), despite the 100-degree heat in the dusty Riders’ Club arena. She has a new western accessory this year — a great big silver- and gold-toned belt buckle that reads “Genny Olmstead, 1973-2013, 40 year 4H Horse Leader.” It was a gift from her daughter, Denise Olmstead. Her mother’s daughter, Denise has been riding horses by herself since the age of 3.
“I have a passion for horses,” Denise said. That passion extends beyond her nine years in 4-H. She also owned and trained horses and barrel races at rodeos. Today, Denise helps lead the club, as do co-leaders Sharlene Bowen and Robbie Anderson.
Genny Olmstead started leading 4-H those many years ago at the suggestion of a next-door neighbor in Washington County, Ann Herman. “She got me started being a 4-H leader in horses and I had two of her kids in 4-H,” Olmstead said.
When she first started, Washington County had 500 kids in horse clubs.
“At one time we had 50 clubs,” she said. “Here there are only five.”
Olmstead has contemplated quitting before.
“But any time I’d say I was quitting, the parents would say ‘no, you’ve got my children, you’ve got to do that one yet. We need you, Genny.’”
That’s not the only reason she stays with 4-H.
“I do it because it’s something they can learn and use during their lifespan,” she said. “It’s not about going up and getting a blue ribbon. It’s about learning how to care for a horse and be safe — how to do things for fun and do things as a team.
In the arena on this hot evening, the members start practice with showmanship before mounting to practice their equitation, the art of horse riding. Even though they aren’t on the horses at first, the animals are saddled from the start to save time during the three-hour practices.
In showmanship, the club members lead their horses up to the judge following an established pattern, working to maintain control of the large animals. The exhibitor is judged on how well he or she shows the horse to its best advantage. Standing in for the judge, Olmstead examines each horse and its companion, offering advice along the way, before the horse is lead back to its starting point.
Later the club members bridle their horses for Western equitation practice and Olmstead roams the arena, watching her riders in action and shouting advice.
“Keep your heels forward,” she tells one rider. “Loosen the reins,” she tells another.
These are just two of the horse show categories that will be part of the 4-H horse show. Others include trail riding, English equitation, dressage, ranch hand classes including roping, ranch showmanship and ranch trail. Gaming, timed events on horseback, is also part of the event, including key racing, barrel racing, pole bending, figure eights and two-barrel flags.
“I teach all of it,” she said.
When Shyanna Nails, 16, started in Olmstead’s class three years ago, she struggled to ride her horse.
“He was crazy,” she said of her horse, Whiskey. “I’m very grateful for Genny’s help. He was not ridable.”
Katie Dean, 15, also had problems riding her horse, Flicka, when she joined the club six years ago.
“I like being able to come and work with my horse and learn and teach her new stuff,” Dean said. “Genny helped. When I first got Flicka, I could hardly ride her. Now we’re doing a lot better.”
Reilly Lousignont, 15, rides Zeus in the club.
“Genny gives all her time to us, whatever we need,” she said, “even coming down on her own to help. Even though she works a lot, she makes time for us.”
Olmstead’s grandson, Brandon Ringlbauer, is one of the youngest club members at 12.
“Grandma is really a darned good horse leader — she’s the best,” he said. “She taught me that I know how to do 4-H and that I actually can get blues [ribbons] as a beginning rider.”
Olmstead is quick to note that the club members are not the only ones who benefit from the experience.
“They’re the ones who made me what I am today — the 4-H members,” Olmstead said. “When I started, I was so shy I wouldn’t even sit down to talk to you. The 4-H member, they have helped me a whole lot.”