IONIA — With abundant carnival rides spinning and twirling, games galore, and the smell of fried food wafting through the air, the Ionia Free Fair is about as carefree and fun as anyone would expect from one of the world’s largest free-admission fairs.
But if you look just a little further past the colorful fantasy world of summer fun, you’ll find some of the hardest working youths in Ionia County, who spend hours every day caring for their animals as they partake in one of the biggest weeks of their lives.
For Belding High School senior Lydia Humphreys, 17, the fair isn’t about the rides, food or grandstand events.
It’s about her and her horse, Buckshot, who she’s cared for, for the past 10 years.
“All the 4-H kids work all year and the fair is what we look forward to,” she said. “Everything from the pigs to the rabbits to the horses, we look forward to it all.”
On Saturday and Sunday, Humphreys competed with her fellow 4-H’ers in a variety of competitions, from riding styles varying from English to Western, to speed runs and other categories.
Competing together, Humpheys and Buckshot have formed a bond that takes years to develop, establishing trust as they venture into the arena together.
“You can tell when they are angry, upset or tired,” she said. “But we’ve had a lot of fun, and it’s really rewarding when you get out there and do really well and see your hard work pay off.”
For Belding High School freshman Dana Smith, 14, she would trade a seat on the tilt-a-whirl for a seat on the saddle of her horse, Sprite, without hesitation.
“I personally think the 4-H activities are better than everything else at the fair, but I might be a little biased,” she said with a smile. “Things have been going awesome, better than I expected. It’s been a lot of hard work these past few years, but it’s really paying off this year.”
Smith has been riding since she was just 5 years old and says participating in Ionia County’s 4-H program has been one of the more rewarding experiences of her life.
“Bonding with your horse, having a connection and understanding, it’s difficult,” she said. “We’ve been together for three years, and it takes lots of time and practice to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, but I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”
Kim Godby, the leader of the Bits & Bridles 4-H Club, which has members from the Belding, Greenville and Clarksville areas, has watched kids such as Humphreys and Smith grow up and mature throughout their years in 4-H, and said the program always seems to help shape children into young adults she can be proud of.
“By the time these kids are seniors, they can pretty much pick and choose whatever classes they want to go in,” she said. “It really builds relationships for the kids, and also gives them an animal to work with that has a mind of its own.”
Every 4-H participant competing in equitation, dressage and versatility, among other competitions with their horse, must learn to communicate with their horse through methods of riding.
“There’s a ton to learn, but they have a ton of fun too,” Godby said. “You watch them grow, and learn to bond with their animals. It’s stressful when things aren’t going right, but by the end of the day they still realize how far they’ve come.”
Godby added that 4-H also teaches kids to be responsible, as caring for the life of an animal is something that must be taken quite seriously.
“There’s lots of responsibility, for both the kids and the parents,” she said. “They learn everything from cleaning them, cleaning their stalls, feeding them, saddling them on their own, grooming and bathing the horse. It builds a lot of confidence.”
Throughout the remainder of the Ionia Free Fair, events such as the dairy goat show, Cloverbud and mentor horse show, small and large animal auctions, and livestock judging, will keep the many 4-H members active throughout the week.
At the end of the day, the average fairgoer may have had a wonderful summer day wandering through the Ionia County fairgrounds, but the biggest smiles undoubtedly will come from the hard working 4-H’ers just a small stretch away from the sights and sounds of the carnival.