Four Lipan High School graduates recently experienced the achievement of a lifetime when they departed Texas as college students and returned as national champions.
Grace Heavyside, Cameron “Camey” Powers, Dylan Sinclair and Micah Wallace traveled to the 96th National FFA Convention & Expo in Indianapolis, Indiana on Nov. 1-2, where they showcased their extensive knowledge in the Horse Evaluation Career Development Event (CDE) by officially placing first in nationals.
After previously qualifying in both the district and area horse judging competitions, the four girls competed in the state competition in April at Texas Tech University in Lubbock — winning first place out of 508 teams in Texas.
The accomplishment qualified the team for nationals, where they were set to compete against the state winners from all over the United States, plus Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, as they are all U.S. territories.
Although it seems strange having college students competing in a high school FFA competition, Lipan ISD agriculture teacher and horse judging coach Brad Harrison explained that the high school contests are always held in March and April. However, the national contest is always held in late October or early November each year.
“If a team wins their respective state contest, as high school students, that qualifies them to compete in the national contest the following fall,” he explained.
But even competing as college students, the girls still had a challenging couple of days, as their skills and knowledge were pushed to the test.
"The competition in Texas is very hard,” Harrison said. “There's nearly 600 teams that we essentially have to compete with and when it starts out, you have to beat thousands of teams to get to that point. If you win the nationals, you beat thousands of teams from every state, and it's just a big, big deal. If you win it, that means you're the best in the nation, and that's where we wound up — the champion, the first-place team.”
The Lipan FFA horse judging team won first in nationals, with Camey Powers winning first place in nationals as the top participant.
“There's four kids on the team. They compete for the most part individually, and then they combine their scores, and that's how it works as a team score,” Harrison explained.
According to ffa.org, students who participate in the National FFA Horse Evaluation Career Development Event (CDE) gain new insights into equine science by evaluating and ranking horses based on breed characteristics, conformation and performance. Participants defend their decisions through oral reasons in front of a panel of judges.
“When you get to nationals, they do things a little bit differently than we do in Texas,” Harrison explained. “They have a different format. We do most of the same things they do in Texas, but then they add to it and it's kind of a horse-skill-a-thon.”
Harrison said the girls competed for eight hours on Nov. 1 and four hours on Nov. 2. With so many students competing in the horse judging category, Harrison explained that instead of the girls giving their oral reasons verbally, they had to write them down.
“They actually gave them a written set of questions that they had to answer, which goes over a lot of the same information,” he said.
The girls had to write down their oral reasons separate from their other teammates and memorize them — while eating lunch at the same time.
"They didn't really get a break that day,” Harrison said.
According to ffa.org, students in the Horse Evaluation CDE also solve problems related to everything from the nutrition and reproduction of horses to the tack, equipment and feed used to care for horses. Participants strengthen their leadership, observation, analysis, critical thinking and communication skills while also developing and exercising a competitive team spirit and building an awareness of career opportunities within the equine industry.
“They have to be able to identify a lot of different horse and pony breeds and then they have to do some tack identification,” Harrison said. “As a team, they give them a scenario. The scenario was: ‘If you girls are going to put on a horse seminar for wannabe horse owners in an urban area, what are some things you need to cover to explain to them all the facets of owning and caring for a horse?’ So, they have 20 or 30 minutes to sit down and write out basically a script and they're gonna do this presentation in front of these judges of what they would include at the seminar. Each of the four girls basically have to speak an equal amount of time — that's something that we don't have in Texas.”
Another scenario, Harrison explained, involved the girls receiving three symptoms of a sick horse. They then had to diagnose the hypothetical horse, explain how they would treat the illness, and how they would administer the medication.
“It's pretty in depth. These kids have to be pretty knowledgeable and pretty savvy,” he said. “We just happen to have an exceptional group of girls.”
Harrison said what adds to the interesting story is that Powers, Wallace and Sinclair all grew up around horses — but Heavyside joined the team her senior year and began at a “blank state,” knowing almost nothing about equines.
"The other girls kind of got her up to speed and she did exceptionally well from not knowing anything basically a year before the contest," he said. “It was actually probably about eight months from the contest when she really started learning, so that was pretty interesting.”
With Heavyside attending Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Powers at Texas A&M University in College Station, Wallace at Wharton County Junior College in Wharton, and Sinclar at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Harrison was both thrilled and surprised that the girls all put their college careers on hold for a week to compete in the 96th National FFA Convention & Expo.
“We're a small school, so we're really close, but we became really close over the years, so I've been in contact with them all through the summer,” he said. “They were like, ‘Yeah, we're gonna try to make it work,’ and I was a little worried, but they've done exceptionally well because they would even Zoom each other and study the material.”
Before the team had even left for their trip to Indiana, Harrison said they were already determined to win nationals.
"We met early last Monday morning, and they get in the pickup to drive to the airport, and I'm telling them how much I appreciate them,” he said. “I told them, ‘I know y'all have been studying, and I have every bit of faith in the world in y'all. How do y'all feel about it?’ They kind of looked at me and said, "We're gonna win." They were determined they were gonna win that thing before we ever left — and they did.”
He said from the beginning, he had “all the faith in the world” in his team because of how well they worked together.
“They're just a great support system for one another,” he said. “They're just like sponges wanting to learn and wanting to excel, and they'll carry that through life. I have no doubt in my mind that all four of those girls are going to be extremely successful.”
He added that to have a group of students like that who are self-motivated and driven, it makes him feel rewarded as a teacher that he’s making a difference.
"That's why we do what we do as teachers,” Harrison added. “You don't make a very good living being a teacher, but when we get rewarded with kids like that, man, that makes it all worthwhile.”