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It was dark by the time Sue Cusic called an end to practice at Oak Ridge Park in Hughesville on Friday evening. However, the members of the 4-H equestrian drill team, which Cusic coordinates, wanted to try the “wagon wheel” maneuver one more time.

The team’s 16 riders, ranging in age from 7 to 17, and their horses had divided into two groups both working in a line, with each group’s first rider keeping their horse stepping in place, with all the other riders in the line moving together at whatever pace it took to keep that line straight as they swept around in a circle together.

One of the groups kept its line together, while the other “wagon wheel” seemed to disintegrate.

“We need more practice on this,” Sue said, mostly to herself, as she watched from behind the fence.

The fledgling drill team is preparing for a program that will be featured the first evening of the 66th Annual St. Mary’s County Fair, on Sept. 20, at the county fairgrounds in Leonardtown. The riders have been working together since March, practicing on Tuesday and Friday evenings, to learn how to ride in different formations to the beat of music, how to control their horse’s pace to match the other team members’ and how to work together with riders of widely differing riding experience one member has only been riding for a few months, others have been riding as long as 12 years.

“They have been working very hard,” Sue said.

Christy Cusic, Sue’s daughter and one of the junior leaders of the team along with Katie Phippen, said she thinks the team will be ready by the Sept. 20 performance. “The group has improved,” Christy said from atop her horse as the team members left the ring after practice. “When we first began, some didn’t even know how to trot. Now, we can work together.”

“Drill team is all about riding your horse to music,” Sue said. “You learn to keep your horse to the same beat as your partner.”

The team members wear matching patriotic-themed T-shirts that Sue plans to decorate by sewing on some fringe. Some of the members hold a flag the 4-H flag, Maryland state flag or U.S. flag. And the team’s saddle blankets all match, following the patriotic theme.

The new team has had to overcome some challenges. For instance, the team hasn’t had a good public announcement system to use, so they just blast their country music over an old boom box. Also the flag poles they use aren’t really designed for a drill team. The poles are too heavy for the members to hold up very long and are not tall enough for the flags to be seen well.

Not all the team members own the horses they ride. Some are owned by people who give lessons to the riders. And the team is a combination of English and Western riders, two riding styles.

But those issues pale in comparison with what the participants and the 4-H program are getting out of the team.

Sabrina Hecht of Mechanicsville was among the group of parents watching outside the ring as their children practiced. Hecht’s daughter, Marina Blake, 9, a fourth-grader at Mother Catherine Spalding, is one of the least experienced riders on the team. “It’s been a challenge, because she got the pony three months ago,” Hecht said. “It’s been fun. It’s been a challenge. And every day she gets better. Look how they’re all in unison.”

Katelin Wood, 10, of Leonardtown, a fifth-grader at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, has been riding for five months. She is a big fan of horses in general she has a collection of 37 horse models at her home. All the hard work the drill team has put in has been “fun ... I think all of it’s fun,” she said.

Wood explained that she is able to control the pace of the dapple gray horse she is riding, Tag, “with just a little kick.”

When asked how Tag feels about all the drill work, Wood said she suspects he doesn’t mind. “He’s OK with it because after I do it, I give him treats ... lots of treats,” she said, referring to the carrots and apples she brought to offer Tag after practice.

Another member of the drill team, Haley Patton, 12, of Mechanicsville and a seventh-grader at Margaret Brent Middle School, said being on the drill team was both fun and work, but that it wasn’t too difficult. “Not really,” Patton said, seated on her ride, Mabel. “She understands what I’m asking her to do.”

Sue Cusic is assisted by riding teachers Julie Raley of Leonardtown and Trudy Pringer of Mechanicsville in running the new 4-H drill team. Sue has also been busy preparing for the county fair’s annual 4-H horse show and she is the longtime volunteer leader of the Crazy Critters 4-H club, which will also be active in fair competitions.

Barbara Dobbins, a 4-H program assistant in the University of Maryland Extension office in Leonardtown, credits Sue with increasing interest in 4-H in St. Mary’s.

“She’s done a lot with this group,” Dobbins said. “She’s pulled a lot of new kids in.” Dobbins noted that participation in the 4-H horse show had dwindled over the years, and the drill team has caused many of those participants to also get involved in the horse show competition.

There are currently about 175 young people involved in 4-H in St. Mary’s County. In addition to the equestrian drill team, 4-H also plans to sponsor a lawn tractor driving contest as another new event at this year’s county fair, along with the numerous regular competitions sponsored by the club.

Once the county fair and the drill team’s first performance is done and the horse show is over, Sue said, with a laugh, she was going to “rest ... a lot!”

“I’m nervous, but we’re excited,” Sue said. “We’re getting there.”

scraton@somdnews.com

If you want to go

The 66th Annual St. Mary’s County Fair will be held Sept. 20 to 23 at the fairgrounds in Leonardtown. Entry day is Sept. 19.

The 4-H equestrian drill team will perform on Thursday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m. The presentation will last between 30 and 45 minutes.

For more information about the fair schedule and special events, see a catalog of classes at any of the public library branches or visit www.smcfair.somd.com.

For more about getting involved with 4-H clubs in St. Mary’s County, call the local University of Maryland Extension office at 301-475-4478 or visit http://stmarys.umd.edu/4h/.