12:31pm

Fri July 29, 2011
Sports

Young Riders Strut Stuff

Many young horse riders are getting their first taste of the big time this week at Kentucky Horse Park. Trailers line the parking lots, colorful golf carts decked out in U.S., Canadian, and Mexican flags speed by, and spectators brave the summer heat for a glimpse at the young talent. It's early afternoon and 17-year-old Talia Hershaft just finished a solo ride in front of the judges. 

"We've had better rides, but given everything, given the heat, I thought it was a pretty good ride," she said. 

She's one of hundreds of riders, all between the ages of 14 and 21, dreaming of gold and silver at this year's Young Rider Championship, an event that began well before they were born and has grown to include new disciplines, such as reining and endurance. One rider already taking home two medals this year is Brandi Roenick, who was eager to return after competing last year. 

"I had a little tougher of a horse to ride, but this year I have my horse and she's been my partner for years now," she said. 

Still, she and her horse, Pretty Lady, could probably do without the humidity. 

"Lady has handled it very well, but me not so much. I really can't breathe when I ride. I'm just holding my breath for every single stride," she said. 

Roenick knows the competition is stiff - in part because the championship is often considered a stepping stone to bigger international events. David O'Conner, president of the US Equestrian Federation, and Olympic gold medalist, got his start with Young Riders. He says the experience can be transformative. 

"They're really riding in the footsteps of their heroes," he said. 

And from the looks of this year's competitors, it's clear the next generation of riders has every intention of keeping the tradition going.