When 14-year-old Ella Bailey climbs onto the back of her thoroughbred, Cracker Jack, the two take off in the spirit of a sprinter. Meanwhile, 15-year-old Sarah DeWeese and her horse, Iron Heart, take it slow and focus on elegance, emulating the discipline of a ballerina.
That's the balance the two McCracken County girls have formed in their years of working together with Calloway County-based trainer Ivy Nyberg and their beloved thoroughbreds.
Bailey, a freshmen at Paducah Tilghman High School, and DeWeese, a sophomore at McCracken County High School, have both been riding horses since they were little. Since then, they've taken their riding experience to new levels by competing on thoroughbreds that are ex-racehorses.
Bailey describes 8-year-old Cracker Jack, or just "Jack," as "high strung and grumpy." Despite how intolerant Jack can be, Bailey knows how to handle him, as they have taken home numerous awards throughout their often monthly competitions. The team competes in jumping, an equestrian sport where Bailey must lead Jack in jumping over gates that range between 4 feet and 4-feet-6-inches tall.
While a horse may be naturally inclined to jump, Bailey does a lot of the work for Jack. Before a show, she generally has less than an hour before the competition to go out on the track, when she walks sometimes 16 gates and counts her steps. She has that time to memorize exactly how many steps Jack should take between each jump.
The team's success is based on their time, which is where Jack's tendency to run fast helps out.
Meanwhile, DeWeese and 7-year-old Iron Heart, a laid-back thoroughbred that likes to take it slow, are jumping over smaller gates. They're not being judged on time. Rather, it's all about poise.
Called the "hunter" division, DeWeese is judged based on showmanship, etiquette and precision. Both Iron Heart and DeWeese must look like they're at ease, yet Iron Heart must also be "on the bit," meaning his back is raised and body is compact.
Both the girls competing on thoroughbreds in their divisions is what makes their experience unique to many of their competitors. Bailey said it's common to show up to competitions that are open to both "warmblood" horses, or those bred especially for equestrian sport, and thoroughbreds. Sometimes Bailey said she'll be competing against riders on $100,000 horses bred specifically for the event.
"We've had to really work for our horses," DeWeese said.
Although there isn't an equestrian team at McCracken County High School, DeWeese has achieved her freshmen varsity letter by applying through the U.S. Equestrian Federation High School Equestrian Athlete Program. In order to receive the letter, DeWeese had to meet certain riding-time requirements and grade-point average standards. Next year, Bailey will be able to apply.
The girls compete year-round by traveling to indoor competitions in the winter. Because there aren't many options of horse-riding facilities suitable for jumping in the Jackson Purchase region, their chosen sport requires a lot of travel.
But their placing at recent events has made the trips worth it. At the Bluegrass Summer Classic in Lexington earlier this summer, one of the few shows where the girls got the chance to compete in thoroughbred-only divisions, DeWeese beat out adults and professional trainers to win Reserve Champion Thoroughbred Hunter.
Bailey likewise returned home from Lexington with a prize after she won Champion Thoroughbred Jumper.
The teens have been traveling to their horses and trainer in Calloway County almost daily to prepare for a competition in Memphis this weekend. During training, Bailey will sometimes be thrown from her horse, but she noted she's learned to fall gracefully. Bailey said falling generally means the horse and rider aren't communicating well, though, which is when the girls' trainer, Ivy Nyberg, steps in.
Following a recent fall Bailey took while training, Nyberg had the girls ride without stirrups, which strengthens the girls' thighs and calves and isn't easy, they said.
Athletic training is something Nyberg incorporates into her routine at her farm northwest of Murray in Kirksey. She also makes sure the girls eat like athletes and get enough sleep.
Nyberg buys thoroughbreds and retrains them from their racing days to help find them a new home. It's a challenge training and working with thoroughbreds, because they gather habits from racing on the track that aren't as suitable for their transition to other equestrian competitions such as jumping.
Nyberg said Bailey and DeWeese have done a "fabulous job" of training their horses. In addition to gaining experience in jumping thoroughbreds - an activity that receives little attention in western Kentucky - the girls also garnered their own friendship out of the sport. The two met after training with Nyberg, whom they said has become "like a second mother."
While both Bailey and DeWeese are comfortable on the back of a thoroughbred, Nyberg said youth thoroughbred riding isn't nearly as common as it once was.
"For this area, not a whole lot of kids do it. When I grew up, it was very common," she said. "If there were more girls who wanted to do it in this area, they would be pretty limited with who they could ride with."
Nyberg noted jumping can be an expensive sport, but she said she grew up not having much money and was able to pull it off.
"It takes a lot of hard work and dedication," she said.
Bailey and DeWeese said they're willing to do the hard work if it gives them the opportunity to work with horses. Bailey said jumping is her favorite thing to do, and DeWeese said she hopes to never stop spending time with horses.
"One thing I love about horses is they're a lot like people," Bailey said. "You have to figure out what they want and understand."
DeWeese added: "Even if I'm unable to ride at some point ... I don't think I'll ever stop loving horses."
Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.
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