Leah Goff of Conway is a shy 9-year-old, but when she gets on a horse, “she’s kind of fearless,” her mother said.
Leah won High Point Rider two years in a row through the Arkansas Hunter Jumper Association.
Her trainer, Natalie Smith of Conway, said the awards are impressive.
“It’s very amazing, especially for a kid her age,” Smith said.
Leah, the daughter of April and Shannon Goff, is a fourth-grader at Vilonia Primary School.
“I’m really excited when I get High Point Rider,” Leah said.
This is not the rodeo-style riding that many Arkansans grew up with, said Smith, a native of New York and a longtime horsewoman.
Hunter/jumper is a type of English riding.
“It’s a combination of the military, and also you have the influence of English fox hunting,” Smith said. “That’s where the basic style of riding originated — out of necessity. To be able to jump a hurdle with a horse, you have to be able to maintain a certain body position.”
Riders take their horses over various jumps on courses, and points are given for each win during the year’s competitions.
“This year, Leah won not only her division championship, but overall High Point Horse for the entire year and High Point Rider,” Smith said.
Leah’s horse, Dakota, won High Point Horse with a previous owner, Smith said, who was also her student.
“He’s a talented little guy,” Smith said of the horse.
The High Point Rider is the person with the most points, regardless of age, she said.
Smith said Leah’s dedication is impressive for a child or adult.
“I’ve had many, many kids win those awards in the years I’ve been here. She’s my youngest one,” Smith said. “It gives you the idea of how committed she is.”
“I didn’t usually do any sports,” Leah said, but her 12-year-old brother, Jake, does.
April Goff said Jake’s friend had a sister who took lessons from Smith at Caney Creek Farm, so Goff took Leah to watch one day.
“She loves animals,” Goff said.
Leah said she immediately liked what she saw and wanted to train. She was just 6 when she started.
“I tried to talk her out of it a little bit; we’re not horse people,” Goff said.
Leah said she had ridden ponies before, but this experience was different.
“First, I learned to trot,” she said. “When I started jumping, it was sort of hard for me, but not really any more.
“You have to point him at the jump and make sure he’s going at the right speed.”
“We’re pretty consistently working up to 3-foot jumps,” Smith said.
Is it scary sitting on the back of a big animal as he jumps?
“It sometimes could be, but usually not,” Leah said. “When I’m riding him, he doesn’t really feel that big to me.”
Leah fell off another horse when she was almost 7 and broke her ankle, which required surgery.
“It wasn’t on the same horse I have now. When I was learning how to canter, I was kicking her. … She just took off running, and I fell off,” Leah said.
Goff said she considered making her daughter quit the sport.
“I was ready to be done with it, but we had committed to buying a horse,” Goff said.
“My husband said if our son broke his arm playing football, we wouldn’t make him quit,” she said.
As the old saying goes, when you fall off a horse ….
“I kept telling them I wanted to continue,” Leah said.
“I probably took lessons for a year before I got my horse,” Leah said. “I got him at Christmas.”
Leah said taking care of Dakota is her favorite part of owning him.
“I have to feed him every single morning and every single night, and I just like seeing him every single day,” Leah said.
Smith also said Leah has missed friends’ birthday parties to make it to riding lessons.
She said Goff is not a stage mother.
“It’s not her mother; it’s her,” Smith said of Leah’s drive.
It’s time to up Leah’s game, Smith said.
“What we’re working toward is taking her to horse trials, three-day events,” Smith said.
They include combined training, dressage, show jumping and cross-country jumping.
“It’s definitely something that takes a tremendous amount of commitment because you’re doing three different disciplines in English riding,” Smith said.
“Every discipline has a slightly different position, according to what you’re going to be doing — your hips, your hands, everything.”
Leah said Smith is a good coach.
“When I’m at lessons, sometimes I forget to sit up straight, have my heels down and stuff like that. Those are mostly the only things she gets on to me about,” Leah said.
A certain attire is required for competitions, too.
“I have to wear a jacket, so this year, I started wearing a black jacket, and you have to wear gloves when you’re doing competition, and I wear a helmet,” Leah said.
“It reflects the traditional attire from the fox-hunting field,” Smith said. “It’s very formal and very traditional.”
The first horse trials will be in April in Louisiana, Smith said.
Leah said as much as she loves riding her horse, she isn’t interested in rodeo.
“I don’t think it really looks that fun to me,” she said.
Smith said she has rodeo riders who take dressage lessons from her.
“You’re educating the horse underneath you to move correctly — to carry themselves, balance,” she said. “It’s taking a second or two off a barrel run.”
Smith said the hunter/jumper sport is growing by word-of-mouth.
“I think for Leah, it’s going to be a lifetime sport, I really do,” Smith said. “You can usually tell the ones that it’s going to be a lifetime thing.”
That’s another plus for the sport, Smith said. It’s something all ages can do.
“I have people riding with me 4 to 65. It’s a sport all ages can enjoy. … You don’t have to compete,” Smith said.
Leah said she plans to compete for a long time.
“My goal for this year is to win High Point Rider,” she said.
Leah, who also is a straight-A student, said that when she grows up, she wants to be a veterinarian.
“I’m allergic to trees, grass, dogs and cats, she said. “Not horses.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.