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Riffels learn showmanship, life lessons

Learn life lesson about grief, industry

Staff writer

When Karl Riffel, 15, of Tampa prepares to show a pig at the Marion County Fair, a bevy of techniques race through his brain.

He has to tap the pig sternly, not too forcefully or timidly, to get the animal moving to parade in front of the judge for showmanship. The animal must obey him, stand and move when requested. He has to keep distance between the judge and the pig.

After all of these small tests, Karl answers questions from the judge. Karl’s 13-year-old brother, Kyle, planning to show a goat at the Marion County Fair, might receive questions from his judge: the weight of the animal, the type of feed used, and the ratio of the feed.

Karl will field more open-ended questions, possibly about the swine industry or what he would change about his animal. The second question Karl has pondered; he said even if he answered that he would change nothing, that answer could be acceptable.

“They might think you’re cocky but there really is no wrong answer,” Karl said.

Through the showmanship process, Kyle and Karl said confidence is a major factor. While they need to remember all the proper techniques for showing their animals, judges can tell if a competitor is nervous and dock points.

“My parents say it really doesn’t matter about the pig, it’s about how you do,” Karl said. “You’ve still got to be yourself when you go into the showring.”

The Riffels win often.

“When you go in thinking you’ll do good and you win, that’s an awesome feeling,” Karl said.

The Riffels, including 8-year-old sister, Kara, can draw confidence from an uncommon preparation. Beth Riffel, their mother, said her children start practicing intensely in March. With exercising and feeding their animals, the Riffels can work with their prize pig or goat for 30 to 45 minutes a day.

The Riffels ramp up their efforts in the summer. They practice — including fielding questions from their parents who act as judges — up to two hours a day as the Marion County Fair approaches.

“They’ve set personal goals,” Beth Riffel said. “It’s just like not everyone goes to the batting cage every day, but those who want to be better hitters, do.”

Even though they put in the time before the fair starts, the animal showing process actually starts seven months earlier in December and January. Raising most of their animals, Karl, Kyle, and Kara pick out their prize goat or pig shortly after the animals are born.

This year, Kyle is showing a wether at the respective fairs. He picked out his favorite goat so early the family started calling the small kid “Kyle.”

After the animals are selected, a taming process begins. The Riffels feed the animal marshmallows and play with them before they start training.

“I like the in between, getting to play with them,” Kyle said. “It’s getting that animal to trust you.”

Sometimes the care the Riffels exhibit toward their prized animals is for practical reasons. Karl said, with the recent 100-degree temperatures, he has been careful to water the pigs every two hours and give them a place to wallow. Once before, Karl had a pig die before the fair began because of scorching temperatures.

“Pigs don’t sweat,” Karl said.

Inevitably, with the work and time they invest, the Riffels develop an emotional attachment to their prized animals. The connection is tenuous because the male animals will be sold for meat after the fairs are over.

“We love our wethers, but they’re going to have to go to the meat locker,” Kyle said. “You go out and play with them every day. The next day they’re not going to be out there.”

Having been in 4-H and showing animals from a young age, Riffel understands this dilemma.

“I will tell you that I was the kid who cried the biggest tears when steers were loaded onto trucks,” Riffel said.

Riffel believes the emotional conundrum is perhaps the most important life lesson 4-H can teach. The Riffels’, Beth and husband James, industry is to farm and raise livestock.

“They understand, something they’re taught at a very young age, we raise livestock to feed the world,” Beth Riffel said.

The other part of the showing process is learning to grieve on a yearly basis. Riffel said her children have gained an appreciation for the life cycle. They can acknowledge the good times they had with that animal but still feel sad.

“Children in 4-H have a healthy respect for the grieving process,” Riffel said. “Kids who never have that loss … it’s a lot harder to deal with.”

Over time, the Riffels have become more comfortable with the process. When Beth pulls meat from their freezer, the children now ask which animal the meat came from.

“They take pride in raising good and tasty things and knowing they’re part of that,” Riffel said.

What adds to that comfort is the knowledge, like their older ranching counterparts, the showing process begins anew next season.

“Once you get over it, there’s always next year,” Kyle said.

For the Riffels, the showing process is a competitive outlet, a family activity, and a chance to be around like-minded people.

Kyle and Karl both said they have developed a healthy sibling rivalry. They have a definite contrast of styles. Karl is much more deliberate in his showing style; Kyle is faster and more intense. When it comes to showing competitions, head-to-head with the animal out of the picture, the two brothers want to best one another.

However, the younger generation may surpass them both. Beth Riffel said Kara was pretending to show animals when she was first learning to walk. She is learning from her brothers and has a showing style that is combination of her siblings. Karl said she has a chance to be the best showman in the family.

While the competition can be fierce between the Riffels, they support each other and help teach other competitors. Karl is attempting to win the Round Robin competition at the county fair. He will have to show a pig, meat goat, dairy goat, sheep, horse, a beef animal and a dairy cow. The Riffels and other families are collaborating to trade goat and horse knowledge.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is their willingness to help other 4-H’ers,” Beth said.

One of the unseen benefits of fairs is seeing friends from throughout the county and the state. Karl has a friend who lives in Scott City.

“It is a group of people with similar interests, grilling, and sitting around laughing about our kids,” Riffel said. “I do look forward to the fair for the people from all over the county.”

Last modified July 21, 2011

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