By Kyle LoJacono
Most girls Leah Ellis’ age are more interested in playing with dolls or having imaginary tea parties than riding a several hundred-pound horse.
“It is rare for someone to be as good as she is at just 8 years old,” said Leah’s trainer Grace Baker. “She’s not my youngest student, but she is one of my best.”
Baker trains horses and children at Cypress Meadow Trails Ranch in Odessa. The ranch has about 60 horses and Baker has about 12 students including Leah.
“I love horses,” Leah said. “It’s not scary at all even though they are so big.”
Leah is about 4-feet tall and most of the horses she rides are around 14 hands high, which is about 60 inches to the horse’s shoulder.
“I’ve fallen off 23 times, but I always get back up,” Leah said. “The last time I got thrown off I was riding a 2-year-old horse named Cash that got spooked and started running. I fell off into a fence and hit my eye.”
She still has the remnants of the black eye she suffered from her last fall. The chance of Leah falling is the biggest fear of her parents.
“I think that’s my little girl on that big horse,” said Leah’s father Joey Ellis of seeing her ride. “It gets my adrenaline flowing every time she goes for a jump. When I sit on a horse she has to lead me around because I don’t know what I’m doing on one. It’s a little scary, but it’s really exciting and I’m very proud of her.”
Leah’s passion for horses started at a young age.
“She has loved horses since she was about 2,” said Leah’s mother Sharon Ellis. “We lived in the Bahamas then and I would take her on walks in her stroller. We went right past a horse farm and she would always sit up in her stroller and point at them.”
Leah was not allowed to ride until she was 4.
“She started off riding Western (style), which is what rodeo riders do but not as intense as what you see in shows,” Sharon said. “She switched to English riding about a year ago.”
English riding requires formal attire and involves riding around and jumping over obstacles.
“One of the biggest things in English riding is how the rider presents themselves on the horse, so what they wear is very important” Sharon said. “They have to be in control of the animal and the judges take points away if they don’t.”
Leah has been able to learn English riding quickly and already has at least 100 ribbons from various competitions around central Florida.
“Her biggest competition was in Venice last August at Fox Lea Farm,” Sharon said. “A lot of people enter that competition and she won the reserve champion ribbon, which is like the runner-up.”
She has won the grand champion at Cypress Meadow’s English Hunter and Jumper Show in January. The young rider was also the reserve champion of a Hunter Oaks event and another Cypress Meadow’s competition each in 2009.
Leah mainly competes against people her age, but she also enters competitions with adults.
“She has won several ribbons against adults,” Sharon said. “She’s young, but she can hold her own against anyone.”
To Leah the competitions are not about winning ribbons.
“It makes me feel happy when I’m riding,” Leah said. “I don’t care about winning ribbons. I just like being on horses because I love them.”
The horse Leah mainly rides at Cypress Meadow is Abercrombie Boy, a 4-year-old large pony that is half Welsh and half quarter horse. Leah calls the horse Fitch.
“I love Fitch,” Leah said. “I also like my trainer because she corrects me when I do something wrong and pushes me when I’m tired.”
Leah is also in the gifted program at Wesley Chapel Elementary School, where she says her favorite subjects are science and art.
“I like doing the experiments in science, but I really like drawing horses and making them out of clay in art,” Leah said.
The young rider still has a lot to learn, but Baker thinks she can be something special.
“I’m very grateful that I can work with her,” Baker said. “She has a lot of talent and she’ll go to the top of the sport if she keeps at it.”
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