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Beltrami County 4-H Horse Drill Team saddles up for its 6th trip to state

Beltrami County 4-H’s horse drill team will be heading to the state competition in September for the sixth year in a row.

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The Beltrami County 4-H Drill Team takes the arena before performing a routine on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, at the Beltrami County Fair.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — With music blasting from the loudspeakers and the first blow of the whistle, eight riders trotted their horses out into the arena to perform in front of their home crowd on Wednesday during the Beltrami County Fair.

Those present were witness to the Beltrami County 4-H’s horse drill team's routine that recently won them a trip to the state competition in September for the sixth year in a row.

The Beltrami County drill team beat out nine other drill teams to win first place on July 30 at the state-qualifier competition in Nevis, where four of the teams got the chance to place and earn a spot at state. The county’s team will now head down to St. Paul on Sept. 16, 17 and 18 to compete at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds following the state fair.

According to Beltrami County Drill Team coach Derek Wickum, the easiest way to describe a drill team is that it’s similar to synchronized swimming, except on horses.

“The whole point of the drill team is it stems from military marching bands, they would do all these routines on horseback, so what we do is similar. It’s choreographed maneuvers to music,” Wickum explained. “There's certain elements and maneuvers we have to implement in our show in order to be judged at competitions.”

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Coach Derek Wickum watches from the sidelines during a Beltrami County 4-H Drill Team performance on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022 at the Beltrami County Fair.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

To be on the team, members must be enrolled in Minnesota 4-H and be at least in the sixth grade. The Beltrami County team ranges from those in grades 8-12.

Each team gets to choreograph their own routines, this year, the Beltrami County drill team’s theme is ‘Fly'. They picked the music and uniforms that represent their theme along with big, blue flags for visual appeal.

At competitions, a drill team is judged on a slew of things such as spacing and alignment, timing and coordination, originality, difficulty, attractiveness of patterns, speed, horsemanship, uniformity, manners of the animals, music and crowd appeal.

According to Wickum, these young equestrians learn a whole lot more than what they get judged on.

“This whole thing is just like anything else, like a sports team or any other team effort,” Wickum said. “You're part of learning to work with people of different skills, different abilities and you learn to work together.”

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The Beltrami County 4-H Drill Team performes a routine on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, at the Beltrami County Fair.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

The goal is to be in sync — the team strives to be all on the same page and work together until even the weakest rider is on the same level as everyone else because efficiency and timing is everything in a drill competition.

“You can see that from start to finish, these girls have done an amazing job, and they really do a lot of it themselves,” Wickum said. “I tell them what the routine is supposed to be, but they can figure out how to make it happen, it's great to see them all talk to each other and figure it out themselves.”

Wickum mentioned that a big part of the positive atmosphere on the team stems from the leadership of the team’s three captains: Kenna Cook, Chloe Cook and Meleah Grundmeier.

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“We have team captains and they do a really good job of facilitating that teamwork and bringing good ideas to the team,” said Wickum. “They do a great job encouraging each other.”

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Team captains Kenna Cook, left, and Meleah Grundmeier lead the team into the horse arena ahead of their performance on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, at the Beltrami County Fair.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

‘It’s a family'

In the words of Kenna Cook, this is more than just a team, it’s a family.

“I feel like our group of girls are so sweet and outgoing. It's kind of like a little family. I know a lot of people say that about their teams, but this team is a lot different than other teams in my opinion,” Cook said. “We hang out together with our families a lot and we have movie nights where we get our projector and put it out on our horse trailer and watch movies with each other the night before competitions.”

It’s not all fun and games though, the group of eight girls has been hard at work this season practicing for hours once a week to perfect their routine. Cook even mentioned that they once practiced for seven hours in one day.

“We work really hard. We have two-to-three-hour practices every week, but one time we had a seven-hour practice,” Cook said. “I think we will have a few more practices before we go to state just to keep in tune and keep our muscle memory.”

Another way the team stays in sync is by the use of whistles. Kenna Cook and her cousin Meleah Grundmeier carry whistles during the routine, when a whistle is blown, it gives direction to the drill team to maneuver.

“We have two different teams within our team when we are out there, my group listens to my whistles and Meleah’s group listens to her whistle,” Cook said, “but at some points in the routine the whole group will go off of my whistle.”

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Team captain Kenna Cook rides during a Beltrami County 4-H Drill performance on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, at the Beltrami County Fair.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

The riders memorize the different whistles and maneuvers to the routine, but the horses learn it too.

“I’ve ridden two different horses this season and both of them learned the drill,” Cook said. “You can feel them anticipating the turns in the routine, they learn the whistles and what means what.”

Overall, Wickum and the team were excited to have the opportunity to perform in their home arena and the chance to perform live before heading to state.

“The horse community is a really tight community,” Wickum concluded. “It’s a lot of fun and the girls are friends through this, this is all something they all share in common. We’re really excited to have another (team) go to state.”

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Community members watch the Beltrami County Fair horse show on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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A Beltrami County 4-H Drill Team member turns her horse during a routine on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, at the Beltrami County Fair.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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The Beltrami County 4-H Drill Team performes a routine on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, at the Beltrami County Fair.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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The Beltrami County 4-H Drill Team performs a routine on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, at the Beltrami County Fair.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Maggi is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on outdoor and human interest stories. Raised in Aitkin, Minnesota, Maggi is a graduate of Bemidji State University's class of 2022 with a degree in Mass Communication.
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