Similar to many teenage boys, Nick Berenger participates in organized sports, works a part-time job and has a need for speed.
One thing that separates this Rockridge High School junior from the rest of his peers, however, is his horseback riding hobby. Not many other 16-year-old boys in the area ride, but Berenger does not seem to mind the attention, or even notice it.
“When you get on, it’s just like another world,” he said this week, following a practice at Loud Thunder Forest Preserve in Illinois City. “You forget about your problems.”
This weekend, Berenger and his 14-year-old horse, Scooter, will return to Loud Thunder for a series of competitions, hosted by the Hayburners 4-H Club and the Illinois City Saddle Club.
The Hayburners will celebrate the end of National 4-H week during the third-annual Ride for Hunger Horse Show on Saturday, and the Illinois City Saddle Club will host its inaugural Wade Maynard Memorial Show on Sunday.
All proceeds from Ride for Hunger will benefit River Bend Foodbank.
Each show is open to riders of all ages and features a variety of disciplines, including halter, showmanship, pleasure and speed events.
Cathy Bizarri, president of the 70-year-old Illinois City Saddle Club, said sharing the weekend with the Hayburners should draw more youth riders, a challenge for them these days.
"There's so many things for kids to do today," she said. "When my kids were little, they didn't start sports until they were in seventh grade. ... Now, kids start soccer at 3 and 4 years old."
Female youth riders significantly outnumber male youth participants.
"There were 300-some kids at the Illinois State Fair and there were only like three or four boys," said Pam Berenger, Nick's grandmother. "It's boy heaven."
More than anything, Nick, who serves as president of the Hayburners, enjoys racing around the arena on Scooter.
“It’s all about speed,” he said, combing the burs out of his horse’s tail before rehearsing for his upcoming performances.
Zipping around the arena at Loud Thunder, Nick practiced picking up a flag from one sand-filled bucket and sticking it in another.
“Get it, get it!” he shouted, steering Scooter toward their target.
A direct hit drew applause from onlookers.
“This is what he does at home to practice, except we don’t have an arena,” said Pam, who oversees the 4-H Club. “We have a backyard.
“There’s a common misconception that you need to have a nice indoor arena, or even an outdoor arena, to be good,” she continued, “but you don’t.”
Nick lives with his older sister and grandparents in Reynolds, Illinois, a small town on the border of Rock Island and Mercer counties, about 15 miles south of the metro Quad-Cities. They have a barn on their property, where Scooter and three other horses live.
“They (horses) are a lot of work,” Pam said, noting the regular brushing, riding and feeding the animals require. “It keeps him (Nick) very, very busy.”
It also takes a lot of repetition to train a horse, she said.
And they are not cheap. A “nice” horse, she estimated, costs between $1,500 and $2,000, plus feeding and boarding expenses. Ones with previous show training cost more.
But the overall equestrian experience, Pam stressed, has made her grandson a confident and responsible young man.
“It’s helped him have a purpose,” she said. “His energy is channeled into that horse.”
Nick attends the United Township Area Career Center, where he studies law enforcement and public safety. On the side, he washes dishes at a restaurant called Boon Docks in Joy, Illinois.
Although he does not have much free time, Nick knows he must clear his mind of any distractions before hopping on the saddle.
"If you're having a bad day, you have to put that aside and just realize, ‘I'm here, and I'm showing,'" he said. "If I'm having a bad day, he (Scooter) has a bad day. If we're both having a good day, were golden."