Darke County Sheriff Mark Whittaker encourages 4-H involvement for youth and adults
DARKE COUNTY – Much goes unnoticed behind the scenes of the gentleman we in Darke County call Sheriff Whittaker.
Mark Whittaker is often seen in the horse rinks at the Great Darke County Fair and surrounding county fairs and shows over the past many years helping set up courses.
Whittaker’s involvement with horses began 12 years ago when his youngest son Reese was eight years old and had an interest in 4-H and horses.
“Reese wanted a horse just like a lot of kids his age and where I lived out in the county we had two neighbors at that time that had horses,” Whittaker said. “My wife Stacey grew up a little bit around horses. Her dad Jim Armstrong owned horses and would train horses off and on over the years.”
On several occasions as a child growing up Whittaker had a “horse or two” but was not involved in horses to the extent as Stacey and Reese’s involvement would become.
Armstrong was originally from the Versailles area before ending up in Tuscarawas County and told Mark and Stacey, “Reese really wants to get involved in horses and I think this would be a good thing.”
Whittaker agreed 4-H would be a good thing for his son but wasn’t thinking horses, known as “hay-burners” to many.
“As a dad I’m like maybe he would like to get involved in 4-H,” said Whittaker. “The livestock producing side of things, steers or something like that…nope – he wanted a horse.”
Having experience with horses, Armstrong told Mark and Stacey – “here’s what I tell you to do – you tell Reese that you strike up a deal with your neighbors with horses, he goes down and takes care of the horses, he cleans the stalls, he feeds the horses every day and make sure they have water and the other rule was he wasn’t allowed to ride the horses, he just had to take care of them. If he does that for six – eight months through the winter and he goes down every day and he doesn’t complain, then see how he does. If he makes it then it looks like you will be buying a horse.”
Sheriff Whittaker would soon get involved with horse and 4-H Clubs of America.
“That is exactly what my son did,” Whittaker noted. “Reese was going down to the neighbors, he was taking care of the horses and that kid made it through the winter and he never complained. He was excited to take care of the horses.”
“It had been six or seven months and my wife came to me and said, ‘you know we’re going to have to buy this kid a horse’ so my wife, my father-in-law, my wife’s stepdad and mother-in-law all got together and found a horse. They called me and said, ‘we found a horse and we’re having it delivered out to a stables’ that we rented at the time.”
“We gave Reese his horse on Christmas day,” added Whittaker. “We took him out there, he didn’t have a clue, but I will never forget that – he hasn’t forgot it.”
That Christmas day started the Whittaker’s down a 4-H path that would make a positive impact in the lives of the Whittaker family.
“You can’t have just one horse I found out,” Whittaker noted with a chuckle. “My father-in-law said I have this horse that is not going to cost you anything, you’re just re-homing it. We have a joke in my family – one free horse is how it started and there is no such thing as a free horse.”
“My agriculture producing friends give me a hard time about being in the horses but it was one of the best things that we ever did,” continued Whittaker. “It taught my son responsibility from a young age. He joined 4-H, he eventually became president of the Greenville Rangers 4-H Club the last several years he was in it and he learned a lot of lessons. Some hard lessons and some very good lessons about responsibility.”
Reese would get involved in performance showing of horses that led to life lessons learned in local 4H clubs.
“There are ribbons given out,” Whittaker noted. “Not everybody gets a blue ribbon, only one person in the class gets a blue ribbon so he learned disappointment when things didn’t go his way and how to deal with that and how to handle that. The responsibility of taking care of an animal and the proper way to do it.”
“Reese developed a lot of friendships,” he added. “Friendships with adult advisors, friendships with other kids and not just kids from his school where he went in Arcanum but he had friendships with kids from all the other schools in the county. That is a very important thing, 4-H brings that to the table. It’s not just your close nit friends at you’re school, it expanded his horizons and helped him learn social skills.”
Reese focused on “Trail Class” that includes leading or riding your horse through a variety of obstacles in time limited competition. The obstacles require setting up, usually left to the parents of the riders and is where Mark became efficient at setting up the courses.
“My son took a liking to “Trail Class” with his horse and you can do one of two things,” Whittaker said. “You can lead your horse through a variety of obstacles and you get graded on each of those obstacles or you can also ride your horse over those obstacles. That was kind of his thing and he went to the state fair for those.”
“Range riding classes and trail were his specialty and as a result as a parent I became used to setting those up. There was me and a couple other dads. Over a period of years you learned how to do it and we became accustomed to do it. There are multiple 4H horse clubs and the parents all kind of specialize in certain things. Their kids gravitate to contest barrel racing poles or things like that.”
“I can go to parent that has a lot of kids or a club that has a lot of kids – they know all the rules about poles, how far apart they should be, how to set them up and I guess over time I became along with other parents in our Greenville Rangers Club pretty knowledgeable about the trail class, how far apart things need to be, how they need to be set up, those types of things and it’s a way we do it as a team. All the parents gather together as a team and work together.”
Many of the 4-H club members are also active in sporting events in the summer and at their local schools in the fall, winter and spring sport seasons.
“There is a lot of crossover in the Greenville Rangers 4-H Club,” Whittaker stated. “We have several kids that are in school sports whether it be football, softball, baseball, volleyball or soccer. To take care of and have the responsibility of caring for horse – and horses you just don’t pull them out of the pasture and take them to the show, it requires training. You have to get on the horse, you have to ride the horse and I don’t care if the horse has been doing it for 20 years, when winter ends and spring comes you get on your horse and you have to start practicing. You have to kind of relearn and reteach.”
“They are all doing this and taking care of their horses every day – those horses have to be fed and watered every single day, day and night and these kids still find time to do these other sporting activities. The club is really good at working with those kids when they have multiple events. It is significant responsibility and it is amazing how busy some of those kids are when you think of all the practices they have to go to and they have to take care of horses. Somewhere in there they have to take a few nights or a weekend and get on that horse and ride so they are ready for the fair or shows.”
“The beautiful thing about taking care of animals and horses is – I’m not saying you can’t look at your phone while you’re riding your horse but if you are not paying attention that can be problematic for you, but it gets those kids off the phones. It’s all outside work and it gets them outside and that has carried over for my son Reese.”
“He loves outside work and because of his experiences, rain or shine shows usually go on,” Whittaker said. “The only thing that stops them is lightning and as everybody knows in Darke County, we don’t have a covered horse arena so whether it’s beating down sun 90 degrees or whether it’s 50 degrees that day and rainy they’re out showing their horses.”
Stacey eventually became a Greenville Rangers 4-H Club (longest and oldest 4-H horse club in Darke County) advisor and continues in that capacity today while Reese is now an adult with his 4H days in the past.
“Now my son is 20 years old – proud of him” said Whittaker. “He works at Ohio Department of Transportation. He loves outside work which is exactly what that is and I believe his lessons learned as a youngster through 4H and taking care of those horses has carried over to his adult life. He has a really good work ethic.”
“I’m not an advisor – I’m just a dad who shows up and helps out,” Whittaker noted. “My wife is doing the advising which I am really proud of her. She’s just amazing. All the work and time she and those advisors spend – those advisors spend hours and hours across 4H teaching these kids. Showing kids how to do things and 4-H is having a positive impact on the kids coming out of 4H.”
“If you child is not in an organization like that you should strongly consider it and don’t think of it as necessarily expensive – horses can be expensive but there are other things and other ways to do it, 4-H has so many opportunities.”
“You do not have to have a horse, you do not have to have a steer or sheep. You can have small animals. There are projects that don’t even require animals. There are projects with no animals, there are projects such as Hunter Education Club, there’s clubs for crafts, clubs for razing vegetables and gardening. There is all kinds of 4-H clubs and they all come with the same principals.”
Quality family time comes as a result of years of participation in local 4-H clubs.
“We and other families would go to our fair as well as other county fairs or other contests to do horse shows, and that is showing horses just like showing livestock, it’s a family event – one person can’t do it,” said Whittaker. “It takes a mom, a dad, a grandma, a grandpa, it takes adults helping the kids especially when they are younger and as they grow up. You see this going on with the parents, you see the horse clubs and the barns are full of horses inside and out and there is lots of activity.”
“If you look around, you will see grandma’s, grandpa’s, aunts and uncles, moms and dads and kids all working together to accomplish similar goals and show their horses,” Sheriff Whittaker concluded. “I see a lot of great sportsmanship and a lot of great horsemanship out there. They’re just passing this lesson on down – there is a lot of interaction.”