Nineteen-year-old Heather Wilkes spends a lot of time eyeballing young males.
“He has a really bright eye,” Wilkes said of the tan stud in front of her. “He has a pretty face, but an average throat latch, nice loins, a good top line, straight legs, and he’s a straight mover.”
Not a bad assessment for a guy, but it’s particularly good if you’re a horse. Wilkes, whose eyes were affixed on her 9-month-old colt Zazoo, has been taking a critical look at horses since she was 7 years old. She’s good at what she does.
So good, in fact, that she’s on her way to the 4-H National Judging Competition in Louisville, Ky., after placing fourth against statewide competition last month.
For seven straight days starting Thursday, she will be judged on her ability to judge.
Wilkes is a freshman at Spokane Falls Community College. She is studying American Sign Language, sociology and math. But recently she said she’s spent more time studying horses than her schoolwork.
“I’ve been thinking about nationals ever since I placed,” Wilkes said.
Wilkes will demonstrate her knowledge of horses against young men and women from around the country.
“You’re looking at the horses overall appearance,” Wilkes said. “Your first impression is the one you want to go with.”
Wilkes will be grading horses she has never seen before. Hers is a skill that requires a keen eye and quick mind.
“Judging horses is kind of like picking an apple in the store. You’re looking for bumps and bruises and soft spots. You’ve got to be able to know all kinds of different breeds and recognize their weaknesses and strong points.”
Heather’s parents, Terri and Mike Wilkes, have passed on their love of horses to Heather and her brother David, who is 16. Terri Wilkes is the performance horse chairman for the Spokane County 4-H Club.
Before Heather could say mom or dad, the sound “heemneee” came from her mouth. Heather was trying say horse, Terri Wilkes said.
The Wilkes’ have lived on a hill off Swenson Road just northwest of Nine Mile Falls for the past five years. Down below the house is a stable that houses Zazoo, A-Boo and Bird, the family horses.
There’s more than casual horseback riding going on.
“This is an educational experience for these kids involved in 4-H,” Terri Wilkes said. “They’ve got to be able to verbalize what it is they see. They’ve got to know every part of the horse from head to hoof.”
In addition to knowing horses, the judges themselves have to be presentable and articulate.
Wilkes had to buy a black and white blazer and black starched jeans. Judges aren’t allowed to have any insignia on their jeans.
And proper English is a must.
“You chew gum up there and you’re in deep, deep doo,” Terri Wilkes said.
From early in the afternoon until sunset, Wilkes is in the barn with the horses.
“She tried soccer once,” her mother said. “But it kept getting in the way of the horse shows.
It will cost about $1,000 for Wilkes to attend nationals. The cost would have been even more were it not for a little help here and there from friends and the 4-H club.
Wilkes mainly sports a bright purple 4-H jacket that’s covered with more horse accomplishments than the average high school jock has letters. An oversized belt buckle also shows awards.
She hopes to bring back more hardware from the bluegrass state next week. She said it won’t be easy.
“It’s going to be intense,” Wilkes said. “At the county and state level, it’s not very nerve wrecking. It’s kind of like interviewing for a job at McDonald’s. But nationals is going to be so different. The more prestige that’s involved the more stress I’m going to feel.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo