Polk County High School senior Emma Gurley spent the past few weeks testing her equestrian skills against some of the top junior riders in the country – and excelling while doing so.
Gurley competed in two elite events in October, taking part in the United States Hunter Jumper Association Zone 3 Finals in Leesburg, Va. and the Hamel Foundation NHS 3’3″ Eq Championship at the National Horse Show in Lexington, Ky.
At the Zone 3 Finals, held Oct. 15-18 and limited to the top 25 riders in five states and the District of Columbia, Gurley earned three top-seven finishes, a third, a fifth and a seventh.
Gurley then trekked to The National Horse Show, a six-day event held beginning Oct. 23 at the Kentucky Horse Park and considered one of the top shows in the country. There, Gurley competed in 16-17 equitation, placing eighth in a field of 31, and in the Hamel Foundation event, where she qualified for the final round of 24 riders in a field of 175.
“It was a really great experience,” Gurley said. “It really pushed me to go in and ride my best to the jumps from the start. There are no warmup show rounds beforehand. At the finals, you had one shot to make the call back and it pushes each and every rider to put their best effort into that round.”
The Hamel features riders who qualified for the event during A and AA-rated competitions held throughout the year. The entire field jumped a first course before judges selected 24 riders to compete in the final two rounds. Those 24 finalists competed on both a jumping circuit and a flat course where riders were judged on the ability to control their mount’s movements and gaits.
After Gurley and her horse, Tino, tackled the first course, she wasn’t confident she had made the final 24 and left the park to grab a meal.
“I was actually planning to wait around and watch the work off,” Gurley said. “I wasn’t planning on being in it. But in the middle of the drive-thru, my trainer called and said, ‘Emma, you made the call back.’ I was so excited when we got back to the show, I literally ran all the way to the arena and paced while watching other rounds.
“It was such a fun experience. Unfortunately, we didn’t place in the top 10, but I was beyond excited that we made the top 24 out of 175 great riders. I was beyond excited with that.”
Taking part in the Hamel marked a milestone in Gurley’s hunter/jumper career, a highlight for which she gives much credit to her trainer.
“I was so grateful to have an amazing horse like Tino and my trainer, Lee Cone, who has literally made me into the rider I am today,” she said. “I became his student six years ago knowing absolutely nothing about hunter/ jumpers. We’ve gone from ground poles in his arena to the national level. I am so grateful to him and all his guidance. I am also very fortunate that I have the support of my parents, Dan and Carolyn Gurley, for always allowing me to follow my dreams. I wouldn’t be where I am now without the support of both my parents and my trainer.
“I think that experience definitely will help in the future with having confidence to compete on a big stage with only one shot and be able to get it done.”