The Douglas County Fair and Rodeo's 4-H competitions can be seen as an exercise in contrasts.
Take, for example, the dedication, patience and wealth of knowledge on display as the 4-H participants proudly show off their animals inside the ring at the pavilion. Then compare that with the sometimes dimwitted and less-than-cooperative livestock that are paraded around the ring.
Jesse Lautenbach, 13, of Sedalia, is quick to admit that the intelligence level of her lambs is questionable at best. On Thursday, she showed "Dumb," a black ewe that placed 4th in the class 5 market lamb show. Dumb's companion is, of course, "Dumber."
Lambs are known to bleat throughout the competition and fight the constant stance corrections and "bracing" by their owners. Showing the lambs requires a calm demeanor and patience, as the animals do not respond to vocal commands.
"You have to love it," said Lautenbach, who shows rabbits, dogs, poultry and lambs with 4-H. She says the Douglas County Fair and Rodeo is her "highlight of the year;" she has been showing animals for six years.
Similarly, Ian McKee, 12, of Franktown, looks forward to the event each year. He showed his gold-laced Wyandotte chicken, Alaska, in the 4-H poultry competition. After the show, he spoke about ways to calm chickens so they cooperate when the judges are carefully eyeing them.
"You stroke their back and their waddle," he said, as his sister, Heather, 10, showed her entry in the barn.
Their mother, Stephanie McKee, whispered a few last-second words of advice in Heather's ear before she entered the ring. She reminded her daughter to enunciate, especially because her chicken's breed is the hard-to-pronounce speckled Sussex, and reminded her about poise because "it's all about presentation."
The 4-H competitions are serious business. Taking the time to prepare is key to having a good show and walking away with a top-three ribbon. Stephanie McKee calls this a "crazy busy" time of year for her and what she calls a "big chicken club," a group of 4-H mothers who have become good friends over the years.
Not everyone is there as a 4-H competitor. Blane Allen, 5, of Larkspur, sported his finest cowboy gear as he cheered on his brother. Blane is waiting his turn for the spotlight. He is a participant in the mutton busting competition during the rodeo. When his father, Scot, is asked what advice he gives his son before he enters the ring, he says. "Just hang on."
The parting of ways is an inevitable part of 4-H. The kids sell off their animals after the shows, and sometimes the good-byes can be difficult. Lautenbach remembers bawling after selling her first lamb, but she now prepares herself for the separation.
Ian McKee said he is usually glad to get rid of his meat pen poultry entrants at the end because they tend to be "mean" and "stupid."
4-H is all about having fun and gaining experience. The kids learn a sense of responsibility throughout the preparatory period, Stephanie McKee said, and pride when they give their best in the show ring.
Lautenbach actually enjoys the chance to be scrutinized by a 4-H judge. Emily Horvath, the judge in the market lamb contests, measured up every detail, including chest depth, length and muscle tone. She offered a critique of each lamb, but consistently ended by highlighting the positive attributes of each lamb.