Young equestrian competes

Nothing unusual about a 5-year-old girl enjoying a pony ride gift for her birthday.

But for Avonworth eighth grader Emma Smith, that gift has not ended, as she continues to ride, four to five days each week, building her skills as a hunter/jumper, riding and honing her skills at Candy Lane Acres in Sewickley.

Emma's mom, Janae, said that as a child, Emma showed an early interest, had a great passion for all animals and liked to jump the horses. But what started as a pastime has now advanced to some intense competition for students in grades 6-12.

She has jumped as high as 3'6'' on her own horse, Elliot, and she also is involved in a high school program for riders, Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA). Riders in grades 6-12 travel to competitions with a coach/trainer, and when they get to the competition, they randomly select a horse by pulling a name from a hat. The name matches up with a horse the rider has never seen or ridden before, but this is the horse that he or she -- boys and girls compete together -- will ride for each of their events.

“You have to be in sync with the horse you ride quickly and adjust to its style and what works to make you a team, since you have never ridden the horse before. It's a lot harder than it looks because you have to be in good shape and be able to adjust to new horses at each show. But it's fun and challenging because you are always riding new horses,” Emma said.

Mom added, “The program showcases the ability of the rider and levels the playing field so that a rider does not need to own the horse to compete. The best riders win, not the best horses.

Emma said that good balance, coordination and strength, and a good partnership with the horse, as well as a love of animals, are qualities that good riders must have.

Once they compete, riders earn points over the course of several competitions. Throughout the past few months, Emma followed a pattern of advancing. She was high point rider at regionals held in State College, PA, and after advancing to zone competition, which covered Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, she was again high point rider. Four riders from each zone then moved on to nationals, which was held in late April in Lexington, VA, where, out of 24 national finalists, she placed fifth in jumping.

More than 20,000 kids compete in this program nationally, and when they go to college, many of them participate in Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association.

Riding at the various levels of competition may be a long way from a birthday pony ride, but Emma, the daughter of Mark and Janae Smith of Ben Avon Heights, said that she truly enjoys the sport, despite the many demands that go along with it.

“Riding is fun and challenging and I meet a lot of nice people from different areas. I would like to compete in college and take my horse Elliot with me,” Emma said.