UPHA Ribbons of Service Program Allows Young Equestrians to Save Lives

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The winners of last year's ROS categories were just recently announced at the UPHA convention in Chicago.


Robertson is convinced that today’s compassionate young riders will become tomorrow’s philanthropists.

The UPHA Ribbons of Service (ROS) program allows young equitation riders to participate in horse show competitions while raising funds for children with life-threatening illnesses. The program began in 2009 and is the brainchild of Helen Robertson, a fourth-generation professional horsewoman and co-owner/trainer with husband Jimmy Robertson of Infinity Stables in Simpsonville, KY. Robertson’s founding vision was to motivate the oftentimes-privileged children in the equestrian world to recognize and help seriously ill children who are fighting for their lives. The winners of last year's ROS categories were just recently announced at the United Professional Horsemen’s Association (UPHA) convention in Chicago.

ROS is operated under the banner of the UPHA with Robertson as the Chairwoman. The program is designed to encourage, challenge, and reward saddle seat equitation and performance riders/drivers who participate in horse show competitions in order to raise funds for a charitable organization. Young equestrians must also commit to helping others through hours of tracked and verified hands-on community service. Likewise, the riders are required to educate themselves and others about the needs and important work of a charitable organization such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and prepare themselves to discuss how participation with horses helps riders learn the value of hard work, sportsmanship, poise, and a rewarding relationship with an equine partner.

ROS had humble beginnings with only 17 equestrian riders, all under the age of 17, who completed the program in 2009. In that year, the program generated ($34,000). Every year since then has seen exponential growth for participation in the program, for the monies generated to help St Jude Children’s Research Hospital (the program’s primary recipient of funds) and for the total hours of contributed community service.

In 2012, 22 ROS riders raised $59,705 with $42,250 allocated for St. Jude. In 2013, more than 30 participants raised $98,817 with $71,000 earmarked for St. Jude’s. Robertson explains the connection to St. Jude. “We chose St. Jude because it embodied the concept of ‘kids helping kids.’ We knew it was credible, and that every cent of the funds we generated would make a huge difference in the life of a child.”

Chris Carkeet of ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital further explains the relationship between the Ribbons of Service program and its commitment to St. Jude, “When Helen (Robertson) came to us with her idea of engaging young riders to dedicate their time and efforts to our mission, it truly touched our hearts.” Carkeet continues, “We were overwhelmed at how passionate and how committed the UPHA riders were to raising funds for the children of St. Jude. Unlike any other hospital, the majority of funding for St. Jude comes from individual contributions. Thanks to dedicated volunteers like Helen and generous donors, families never receive a bill from St. Jude. We are so grateful for Helen, Jimmy and the Ribbons of Service participants.”

The riders are rewarded for their contributions throughout the year. They can win scholarships or prizes by simply competing in a minimum of two saddle seat equitation classes (competitions). There is an overall annual scholarship of $5,000 for the “winner” of the program (i.e. the rider who raises the most money). Additionally, there is a $2,500 scholarship for the “winner” of each breed represented (American Saddlebred, Morgan, National Show Horse and Arabian). Other annual scholarships, in addition to those already mentioned, are: $1,000 for the overall winner, $2,000 for youngest participant who completes the program, $1,000 for the youngest rider who completes the program, $2,500 for the performance rider (non-equitation), $1,500 for the rider who completes the most hours of community service and one more $1,000 scholarship for most hours of community service.

The list of sponsors for ROS’ annual scholarships includes wealthy patrons, equine enthusiasts and some of the nation’s most noted entrepreneurs serving horseman’s needs since the 19th century. Mary Gaylord-McClean of Golden Creek Farms in Simpsonville, KY has been one of the first and most generous having donated from the first year of the program and $15,000/year for the past three years. Gaylord-McClean sponsors the $5,000 overall “winner” and four $2,500 scholarships for each of the four breeds (see above).

Kenny & Ceil Wheeler have had a lifelong passion for horses and show saddlebred as well as hunter/jumper horses. The Wheelers sponsor the community service $1,500 scholarship every year. William Woods University sponsors a $1,000 scholarship for most hours dedicated to community service. David Freedman of Freedman’s Harness & Saddlery Shop hand-stitches custom backpacks for each of the four breed winners. Becker Brothers, equestrian outfitter based in Lexington, KY, sponsor the $2,000 scholarship for the youngest participant. Finally, Independent Equine Agents, an equine/farm insurance provider, sponsor the $1,000 youngest participant scholarship.

The most compelling story behind the ROS program is the children who not only participate in the program but seem to become fully engaged in giving back to their communities. Robertson explains that, “The typical child that’s competing and showing in the equestrian world, is privileged. Compare that lifestyle to those children with virtually nothing or who may not wake up tomorrow.” Robertson is convinced that today’s compassionate young riders will become tomorrow’s philanthropists. “This is real source of pride for me and my husband, Jimmy. We have seen girls like Jordyn Isgrigg, who started in the program when she was only nine years old, blossom into compassionate and dedicated young women.”

Jordyn was the overall ROS “winner” in 2012 having raised $17,418 for St. Jude and she has raised nearly $40,000 over the last three years. She is a American Saddlebred rider whose dedication and passion for fundraising is way beyond her years. In fact, Robertson and Nita Isgrigg, Jordyn’s mother, went on a trip to St. Jude in 2010. The experience was life changing for all of them. Jordyn has given back by making Christmas dinner bags for those in her community who would not have had it otherwise. At Easter time, Jordyn and her classmates created more than 200 handmade cards for the children at St. Jude. She has solicited donations from $10 a class (competition in which she is involved) to one single donation of $1,000. Jordyn even designed and implemented a $5,800 blue jean fundraiser at the Christian academy that she attends where classmates competed to raise the most money.

About Ribbons of Service

The most compelling story behind the Ribbons of Service program is the children who not only participate in the program but also seem to become fully engaged in giving back to their communities. These children don’t need to win a single competition all year long. This is not about the best horses available; it is rather about the most dedicated child. Ribbons of Service program is intended to stimulate interest in saddleseat equitation while helping children get a feeling of accomplishment by giving back to their communities while doing something they love.

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Ray Drasnin

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