For the island’s equine enthusiasts, participating in the Whidbey Western Games Association is about much more than competition.
The association was conceived 25 years ago by a group of longtime Whidbey residents who had progressed through the ranks of 4-H together and determined that an all-inclusive equestrian game association would benefit the community.
Participants partake in Western-style patterned horse racing, which includes 30 different events such as poles, one-jump scurry, speed barrels, Idaho figure eight, stake and gymkhana jig as well as team events such as ribbon race, Western relay and Kansas lead back.
Each game includes five different individual events and one team event.
The season began this month and will go through September, with the final game Sept. 13. In addition to the regular events, the association also holds a two-day O-Mok-See, which is a larger gathering to include riders from various corners of the Pacific Northwest.
Sunday, April 12, marked the first game of the 2015 season. A record number of 101 riders signed up to compete, according to association co-presidents Lynna Baker and Liz McPhee.
Since its inception, the association has expanded to include approximately 200 members and a number of periodic participants, most of whom have come to regard fellow riders as family.
On Sunday morning, Freeland resident Heather Kline peered through the fence of the Island County Fairgrounds arena with camera at the ready. The lifelong rider and association member attended the first game of the season with her husband and children, Lilly, age 7; Lucas, age 5; and Drystan, age 4. Three junior-level riders and their horses stepped into the ring, one of whom Kline has known since “before they were born.”
Kline has been competing since age 16, and her children began competing at age two. They’re “peewees” and are led on their horses at a slower pace by more experienced participants.
“I like feeling like a family with this group of people and how much they encourage each other and root each other on,” Kline said, as she snapped photos of the horses sprinting by.
Langley resident Kristin Woodward has been involved with the organization for 16 years. Like the organization’s founders, she and her husband went through 4-H together. Kristin has been riding since she was 4, and their son, Dylan Woodward, mounted the saddle for the first time at age 3.
Woodward noted that growing up with the association has been a boon to her son, who has made several close friends both from the island and neighboring Snohomish County. Dylan also learned valuable lessons in sportsmanship.
“I think it’s very positive. It’s a family sport so all of us are involved,” Woodward said.
The games are divided into seven age and skill levels, with current members ranging in age from 4 to 70.
McPhee said riders are quick to offer encouragement as well as tips and advice, even for participants against whom they are competing.
Members also share in the workload, with both children and adults working to keep the grounds tidy and ensure that the show goes smoothly.
“Lynna and I love riding, and we love riding in this club,” McPhee said.
Membership for the Whidbey Western Games Association costs $25 for one person or $35 for a family. For a full season schedule and more information, visit whidbeywesterngamesassociation.org.
“As long as you have a Western saddle and some cowboy boots, anyone is included,” Woodward said.