At age 6, when most little girls would be thrilled to ride a pony, the stakes were higher for Emma Shaw.
Emma hoped one day to compete in a national horseback-riding competition.
Now 14, Emma has accomplished her goal in winning form.
The Cory Lake Isles eighth-grader and her horse, Farasi, were named reserve champions at the 2012 Marshall & Sterling National Finals in September.
Reserve champion is the title she earned for being the second place overall finisher in the Bit O' Straw Hunter class, a competition this year that had 60 riders.
Emma, a student at Terrace Community Middle School on East Fowler Avenue, did not tout her horsemanship in a recent interview. Instead she attributed her high-ranking finish in part to a ritual her mother, Michele Shaw, recently adopted.
"My mom sings three songs before every competition — 'New Soul' (by Yael Naim), Maroon 5's 'Moves Like Jagger,' and 'Mambo No. 5' (by Lou Bega)," Emma said, smiling. "She also rubs Farasi's lucky lump on its right jaw."
Emma was not the only local talent to earn a top-10 finish at the national finals. Three other riders who train with her at the Cheval Equestrian Center on Lutz Lake Fern Road competed at the top of their horse jumping classes.
Lauren Bartoletta, 17, of Land O'Lakes, finished sixth in the children's jumper competition. There were 32 competitors in the contest, in which riders must clear the rails as fast as possible.
Alexandra Carroll, 16, of Safety Harbor, earned seventh place in the Children's Hunter class, a contest with 66 riders.
Allison Postier, 13, of Odessa, came in fourth in the Children's Pony Classic class and ninth in the Children's Pony Medal competition. All top finishers and their horses received ribbons and small cash prizes.
The girls' performances at the national finals held Sept. 12-16 in Saugerties, N.Y., marked the end of yearlong campaigns of training, and area and state competitions that began in August 2011, equestrian trainer Lauren Barth said.
They competed in a series of contests throughout the state to earn points to qualify for the Marshall & Sterling National Finals. The equestrian competitions require riders to jump over rails, water, flower beds, walls and other obstacles on a course typically smaller than a football field.
The girls' preparation for competition began during training sessions.
Helmets are standard gear during training and competitions. The girls train on horseback many times without using stirrups. "We do that a lot to strengthen our legs and for good posture," Emma said.
Emma began riding horses at age 5. Her parents, Scott and Michele Shaw, bought her a pony and one year later asked Lauren Barth to become her trainer.
"She has always trained in the practice of English riding," Michele Shaw said, referring to Emma. "She rides three to four days per week and averages one to three competitions per month."
Emma owned two ponies before her parents bought Farasi, a 13-year-old Hanoverian warm blood horse in March 2011. This was the second year Emma rode Farasi in competition at the national finals.
Alexandra, Allison and Lauren Bartoletta also began riding horses in kindergarten or first grade. All four girls dream of competing in a Summer Olympics. If that doesn't happen, they at least hope to compete through college.
In practice, a rider and horse train as a team, and it is the rider's responsibility to focus on thinking as one with the horse.
"You have to be able to communicate (with the horse) without using words," Allison said.
There are days when horseback riding is not fun, the girls said. Sometimes a horse doesn't want to listen or cooperate.
"They have off days," Alexandra said. "Some days you come in and they don't want to do anything."
"Most days the horses are really good for the kids," trainer Lauren Barth said. "You become a better rider by pushing through the tough times."
No rider likes falling off a horse, but it is a hazard of the sport.
"Every time you fall off, you learn something new about yourself," Emma said. "Don't make the same mistake."
Allison is more direct with her advice to would-be horseback competitors:
"If you are afraid of falling off a horse," she said, "you shouldn't be in the sport."