Challenged to Serve

Youth and adults from the Mississippi Quarter Horse Association assist service members at the Semper Fi Fund’s Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program Dixie Challenge Clinic.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

The Semper Fi Fund, which is the parent organization to the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program, provides support and assistance to post-9/11 wounded, critically ill and injured service members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. (All photos by Emily Peak)

The pride and beauty of the American spirit was on full display at the Dixie Challenge clinic, April 24-26 in Canton, Mississippi. The event, sponsored by the Semper Fi Fund’s Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program and the Mississippi Quarter Horse Association, was attended by 16 servicemen and -women and more than 50 volunteers from the MQHA and Mississippi Quarter Horse Youth Association.  

The Semper Fi Fund, which is the parent organization to the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program, provides support and assistance to post-9/11 wounded, critically ill and injured service members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program was dedicated in memory of Col. Jinx McCain, a member of the United States Marine Corps. Col. McCain hosted trail rides for amputees from Vietnam while stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, in the 1960’s. Today, the program hosts approximately six clinics each year, giving service members the opportunity to connect with an equine partner while learning horsemanship and working cattle.

Col. John Mayer has been the director of the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program since 2014. He prefers to call himself the “foreman” because it channels the cowboy spirit.

Col. Mayer, who worked in the Marine Corps for 33 years, began his involvement with the program in 2010 as a supporter, and started working for the program after retiring in October of 2014.

“We try to do six clinics per year, and most of that is dependent on availability of horses” Col. Mayer said. “The basic idea is that we take wounded warriors or those who have been critically injured or those that are critically ill and we give them opportunities to learn horsemanship through these clinics.”

He explained the importance of having good horses for the servicemen and -women to learn on.

“You don’t want to teach horsemanship by sitting on a horse and following the horse in front of you on a trail ride. We really do teach horsemanship. And that’s why this clinic was so fabulous, because the Mississippi Quarter Horse Association and the Mississippi Quarter Horse Youth Association brought their horses. So these were great riding horses, and we also had the owners there supporting and helping with all the little things, so it really made for a superb clinic.”

He added that there were around 50 horses – primarily Quarter Horses – donated to the clinic to be used by the participating service members.

Brooks Derryberry is a member of the MQHA and director of the inaugural Dixie Challenge. Brooks took riding lessons during his junior high and high school years when his father was stationed at Camp Pendleton. Coincidentally, one of his riding instructors was Col. McCain’s oldest daughter, Debbie. The two have stayed in touch and remain close friends to this day.

“When (Debbie) told me about this program, I felt that it was a way for me to give something back to those who stand up for our freedoms, liberties and security,” Brooks said. “I contacted Col. John Mayer about doing a fundraiser for JMHP. He indicated that they really appreciated the fundraising, but they need events. So I went to my friends Christy Harris and Tom McBeath and asked them what they thought about doing an event and they both jumped on it and said they were in. So we decided to get the MQHYA involved as a project.”

The clinic component of the Dixie Challenge took place April 24-25, with each day focusing on different horsemanship lessons taught by various instructors. The event culminated with an actual Dixie “Challenge” on April 26, where participants were tested on the skills they had learned throughout the weekend.

“(We used) ranch trail to teach basic riding skills of guiding, forward movement and maneuvers over and around obstacles,” Brooks said. “This was taught by AQHA Professional Horseman Tom McBeath, Shon Gage, Rebecca Braiser and Tim Anderson. Then there were roping skills taught by Jeff Chapman using roping dummies, with ropes donated by Willard Rope Co. The roping was also done on horseback at a walk by roping a dummy being dragged by another horse. The cattle sorting and handling skills were taught by Rickey Thaggard, with cattle donated by TD Ramsey Cattle Co.”

For the Dixie Challenge, Brooks explained that participants were placed in four-person teams to test the skills they had learned Friday and Saturday. They competed for the Top Team Award and a Top Hand Buckle, and the Most Gung-Ho Buckle, also known as most-improved.

“The improvement in their skills from Friday to Sunday was amazing,” Brooks said.

AQHYA Vice President Mary Claire Cornett (left) and AQHYA President Kalee McCann

Kalee McCann, AQHYA president and a member of MQHYA, was one of the youth involved with the Dixie Challenge. MQHYA members not only helped by hosting and volunteering at the event but also raised approximately $5,500 for the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program.

“The youth association began raising money for the Semper Fi Fund by having fundraisers at our MQHA December horse show and the Holiday Classic Barrel Run,” Kalee explained. “We also sold items at our annual convention in January.”

“(During the Dixie Challenge,) the youth helped the veterans brush and saddle horses each day and also helped with snacks for the participants. We were at the barn by 7 each morning and most did not leave until 8 or after each night! Our youth association loves to participate in activities where we get to meet new people and introduce them into the ‘horse-show world.’

“The event had a huge impact on each youth member that volunteered,” Kalee added. “I know for me it showed how incredibly fortunate I am to have been able to grow up showing horses all my life and experience the joy that horses bring. Also, the interaction with each veteran majorly impacted each youth member. We consider our youth to be family and by volunteering at this event, I believe each youth grew to have a bigger respect for our veterans and develop relationships that will last a lifetime.”

Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program clinics are completely free for the servicemen and -women who attend. Col. Mayer explained that the Semper Fi Fund covers flights for the service members, hotel accommodations and some of the meals. MQHA and MQHYA supplied the horses, cattle, food and drinks. The groups also rented the arena and provided a van to transfer participants from the airport to the hotel and arena.

Brooks expressed how beneficial the Dixie Challenge was for the service members, who came from all over the country to attend the clinic.

“All of the warriors told us how great the weekend was for them and how much it helped them not only with their horsemanship, but in their healing process. The support that they received from Mississippians who came out to volunteer and provide food and horses and cattle and all the things necessary was phenomenal. They said that they had never had an event that had so much support from the local community, and how much our support meant to them.”

For Col. Mayer, the most memorable moment from the weekend took place on the final day.

“The part that I will never forget is when we did our final ceremony and looking at the service members and volunteers – the Mississippi Quarter Horse Association members and youth – saying their goodbyes. There were tears around the entire audience because of the bond that we had made over the weekend. I mean it was a great weekend of riding and all that, but it was absolutely superb because it was Americans coming together and sharing a common love of the horse. And what made it so special was that family like atmosphere that developed over the course of three days of riding.”

Col. Mayer would like to challenge other AQHA members and state affiliates to reach out to servicemen and -women through Quarter Horses.

“The service members … come together for a three-, four-day clinic. And they get super excited about continuing horsemanship; all we really do is give them a taste. But you know there’s a lot more to it than what can be learned in three or four days. But then they go back home, and many of them just aren’t confident enough yet to continue riding. They don’t know where to turn to or who to start with and all that. I think it would be great if American Quarter Horse Association members and the local affiliates like the Mississippi Quarter Horse Association would volunteer to help us out so when these guys go home, maybe someone could adopt them and help them continue in their journey in the horsemanship world.

“There’s no better organization than the American Quarter Horse to do that. The cool thing is that when you teach one person, then they go back home and they get their families involved and their social network involved. And before you know it, you’re growing from the inside a larger focus on the horse industry, which is good for everyone who’s involved in it.”