A desire to show support to the families of deployed military personnel, especially the children, has blossomed into an event that brings joy to everyone involved.
Established in 2011, the Adjutant General’s Horseback Heroes for the children of Oklahoma National Guard soldiers and airmen event offers a safe, cost-free opportunity for kids – many of whom have never set foot on a farm or ranch – to ride and care for horses.
Horseback Heroes, a daylong event that takes place each fall at Gerry Shepherd’s Covey Creek Cattle Co. in Oklahoma City, is a collaborative effort involving the Oklahoma National Guard, Oklahoma 4-H, horse clubs, ranchers, local businesses and various volunteers. Created by Shepherd and former adjutant general for Oklahoma, retired Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, Horseback Heroes was designed to help children with deployed parents have fun and escape their daily routines, and it’s become a highly anticipated annual event that draws as many as 200 Oklahoma National Guard children and their families, as well as the families of other deployed military personnel.
“It started as a small event to let the families know they are important and that someone is thinking about them, particularly the children,” Deering says. “A lot of these young kids have never had an opportunity to ride horses or even be on a farm. This event lets them ride and learn about horses and how to care for them.”
As the event has grown, it’s evolved to include a petting zoo with farm animals such as calves, sheep and miniature donkeys brought in by Oklahoma 4-H members and their parents, along with booths operated by 4-Hers offering more information about agriculture and helping link kids with 4-H clubs in their area. In addition, volunteers include bull riders and calf ropers, providing the children with additional learning opportunities.
“It is people helping people,” Deering says. “It’s a chance to make the young people and the families feel important, to let them know that people care and are looking after them.”
The event includes a main arena and an arena for children with special needs, so no child is left out of the fun.
“All of the children are excited, but sometimes you’ll get a few that are a little intimidated by the horses,” Shepherd says. “But once they get up on those horses, you cannot believe how much confidence you see in them. We’ve never had a child that didn’t ride.”
Shepherd credits Deering with the idea, while Deering credits Shepherd with making it a reality.
Meaningful to Volunteers
“The Horseback Heroes event is a great day for children in military families dealing with deployment to come together, and they have the opportunity to share their experiences with other kids who understand what they’re going through,” says Blayne Arthur, executive director of the Oklahoma 4-H Foundation. “We’ve also found that our 4-H members [who have brought their animals or are serving as volunteers] really connect well with the kids, and they’re able to share their agriculture knowledge in a fun, engaging way. Several 4-H volunteers say the event is rewarding for them. It’s not unusual for them to participate multiple years.”
When discussing the impact Horseback Heroes has, Arthur mentions that many Oklahoma National Guard kids come back year after year, and they often remember the horses they rode during the previous year’s event, even asking for them by name.
“So many children love horses, but they don’t always get the chance to ride them or see them in person, and this event provides an excellent opportunity for them to make that real-life connection,” Arthur says. “Plus, there’s something therapeutic about horseback riding, and we think the children who participate are benefiting from that as well.”