Making Mascots

Washington State Quarter Horse Association members trade cowboy boots for horse suits in order to ramp up enthusiasm for horses.

By Holly Clanahan
America’s Horse
June 26, 2013

Washington State Quarter Horse Association mascots

Kelly Lake's horse, Invita Duke, is the inspiration behind "Duke" the mascot. The sorrel gelding is known for his fun, outgoing personality. (Photo courtesy of WSQHA)

“Dear Wilma,” begins the litany of questions, “… What do you eat? … What is your favorite color? … When is your birthday? … What’s your favorite animal?”

It’s a first-grader trying to get inside the mind of a horse. And that curiosity – and avid letter-writing – is just what Wilma, a Quarter Horse mascot played by AQHA member Marti Zable, is trying to encourage.

Wilma and her barn mates, Duke and Pierre, were created by Kelly Lake and Lisa Gardner as they applied for (and later received) an affiliate grant from AQHA. The Washington State Quarter Horse Association was looking for a way to reach potential youth members, and they settled on the idea of a pen-pal program that would also encourage literacy at the elementary age.

“These kids start so young” in a variety of sports, Kelly says. “If you don’t give them the idea to show American Quarter Horses early, then they’re already funneled into these other sports.”

Lisa agrees that the focus on children is crucial.

“We all have a true passion for the horse industry, and we want to see it survive,” she says. “The youth are our future. If we can’t capture those youth, we won’t have a horse industry in 20 years, even 10. … I think this program can, truthfully, keep our industry alive.”

Kelly, Lisa, Marti and other volunteers have given the mascot program a lot of life. The mascots who come into classrooms are based on real Quarter Horses who are active in the Washington affiliate, and they are often played by the horses’ owners. They each have a biography rooted in real life, and when children write to the mascots, the owners respond with real facts. As the pen-pal correspondence takes off, the horse owners will be able to talk to children about geography, such as where they’re hauling to for a show, or basic animal-care practices – topics that teachers could work into their curriculum.  

Wilma, owned by grant-writer Marti, is A Lady With Assets, who competes in western pleasure, performance halter, trail and western riding.

She’s a 5-year-old bay and the only mare in the bunch, so she gets to play the “sweet and demure” role, Kelly says. Kids also like finding out that she curls up her lip when she’s scratched on her shoulder.  

Kelly’s horse, Invita Duke, is the inspiration behind Duke the mascot. The sorrel gelding shows in horsemanship, showmanship and performance halter and has a fun, outgoing personality.

And when Kelly puts on the Duke suit, she finds herself channeling that verve.

“I’m a girly girl,” she says. “I wasn’t sure about jumping around, being a mascot. But when you put that mascot suit on, the inhibitions go away, and the kids laugh at stuff you do.”

Lisa, who wears overalls to play the part of Farmer Lisa the Horse Wrangler, reads the Cat in the Hat learning book “If I Ran the Horse Show” as part of the presentation when the mascots are introduced to students.

“I antagonize Lisa as she’s reading,” Kelly says, laughing, “and I blow kisses and dance around. The kids are laughing, and at the first school, they started chanting Duke’s name. It has been really fun.”

But as the kids are laughing, they’re also buying into the whole skit.

“The first graders, they seriously think those mascots are real,” Lisa says. “Their minds are still at the point that they can imagine … they think Duke and Wilma and Pierre are real horses.”

Mascot Pierre is the likeness of Get A Coo, a gray gelding owned by Linsey O’Donnell who does showmanship, halter, horsemanship and western pleasure. Children like hearing about how he’s constantly changing color, getting lighter and lighter as grays do.

Linsey was the affiliate volunteer in charge of getting the costumes made, and horse color was an issue with the costume shop, too.     

“They were like, ‘What’s a bay?’ ”she says, laughing. Gray and sorrel were hard to communicate, too, and the shop even had to send Linsey swatches to find the best shade of reddish-brown.

It also was important to find the right horse, as many mascots were designed for sports teams and had an intense look to them.

“We wanted something very friendly and inviting,” Linsey says.

Obviously, they ended up with something that kids can connect to.

Kelly talked to one teacher, who was amazed at how well-behaved an often-disruptive student had been during the presentation.

“Somehow, he connected to the mascots,” she says. “Another little boy said to me that he was going to read and write all summer. And the way he said it, with the emotion and conviction, it was really sweet.”

It’s perhaps the best way to learn – when it just seems like having fun.

Lisa loved going through the first stack of letters that came in for Wilma. The first-grade teacher had wanted her students to learn how to write a letter to someone, and the kids did a great job.

“It just makes you laugh when you see the writing and the pictures they’ve drawn,” Lisa says. “It almost makes you cry when you see them, because it’s like we’ve made a difference.”

Visit www.wsqha.com to learn more about the activities of the Washington state AQHA affiliate.

Youth are on the forefront of every horseman’s mind these days. And they rightfully should be. The youth you’re looking at horseback right now are tomorrow’s trainers and future advocates of the horse. With that in mind, AQHA leaders and staff members have been developing a new equine youth initiative for the past few years. This initiative was created to address the younger youth that are currently underserved by AQHYA and to create new pathways to horseback opportunities that positively impact the lives of these young horse-interested people.