Each summer hundreds of athletes — both two- and four-legged — gather at the J Bar J Boys Ranch northeast of Bend to compete for titles at the Oregon High Desert Classics. Dianne Johnson, longtime manager of the world-class hunter/jumper competition, said the Bend show is the largest such event in United States Hunter/Jumper Association Zone 9, which includes the Pacific Northwest, Montana and Wyoming.
“We draw exhibitors all the way from Alberta, Canada, to Texas to California to Montana,” Johnson said. “The total this year was about 500 horses.”
With exhibitors ranging from ages 8 to 50, amateur and professional, the Classics showcase a variety of talent and display unlimited examples of dedication.
If you have ever attended the horse show, you have seen the vast green fields, the shiny, lean horses and the vendors, exhibitors, trainers, spectators and sponsors who make up the crowds. You have probably also wondered how much a sport like riding costs.
Well, as Capstone Equestrian trainer Tara Niculescu put it, “This is an incredibly expensive sport.” In fact, there are many riders who can’t afford it. But, Niculescu said, “if you put the time in, and you really want to work at it, opportunity will come.”
Opportunities have come for 14-year-old Avery Porterfield. A working student at Capstone Equestrian in Bend, Porterfield is not just another competitor at the Oregon High Desert Classics, but someone whose story is representative of many young riders.
“I work off everything I get, because I can’t afford any of it,” Porterfield said during a brief lull between chores. “I work at these shows and I work at home, all the time, all day long, so that I can get lessons and opportunities to ride and show horses.”
Porterfield, a Bend native, grew up riding horses at her grandmother’s farm in Salem. She started taking riding lessons at 7 years old, and she now competes at the 3-foot hunters and meter jumpers levels. Both sports involve riding a horse around a course of jumps. Hunter classes are judged subjectively based on the horse’s performance over jumps and its quality of movement under the saddle. Jumper classes are scored objectively based on the horse’s athletic ability, judged solely by time.
Not only do you need access to a horse, there are also entry fees, riding equipment, training fees and many other financial obstacles to overcome before joining the hunter/jumper world. For youngsters like Porterfield, riding competitively can seem utterly unrealistic.
Luckily for Porterfield, Lindsey Garner — owner of Capstone Equestrian, where she also trains — was in need of a working student. The position typically entails doing grunt work around the barn in order to receive benefits such as free riding lessons.
“I probably get to the barn at 8 (a.m.) and leave at 6 (p.m.) as a normal day,” Porterfield said. Those hours are spent dusting and sweeping the barn, cleaning riding equipment, grooming and tacking horses for her trainers, and other jobs that help keep Capstone running smoothly.
But being a working student at shows is even more demanding for Porterfield. “I get here a lot earlier, like at 5 (a.m.), and then I leave a lot later, like at 8 (p.m.).” She also takes up responsibilities such as feeding each horse and cleaning their stalls, which someone else usually does at Capstone’s barn.
With 23 horses from Capstone Equestrian competing last week during the first week of the Classics, and 20 during this, the second week, Porterfield has her plate full. Not to mention, she is also competing at the Classics herself. She rode in two classes every day the first week of the show, and she will ride in a total of about five more before the Classics end this Sunday.
“Avery is a really hard-working student,” Niculescu said. “She is our go-to person as far as the knowledge of the horses and the barn. She’s very reliable; she’s always first one there in the morning, last one there to leave.”
Niculescu said one reason why Porterfield is so dependable is because she spends quality time with each horse at the barn individually, getting to know them better than almost anyone else.
But Porterfield is just about to start ninth grade. How can she keep her position as a working student through the school year?
“I’m actually home-schooled so I can work at the barn all the time,” she said, expressing gratitude for the support of her parents.
Porterfield said her favorite part of being a working student is all of the different horses she gets to ride.
“Most of the kids that pay, they have one horse that’s just for them. They don’t ride any other horses. But I don’t have a horse, so I get to ride whatever I can get my hands on. I think that’s really good for my riding,” she said, just before getting on Capstone client Kalie Whitcomb’s horse, named Conrad.
But her least favorite part of the job is a little bit tougher to talk about.
“Being really honest, sometimes it’s hard watching the other kids that pay and have really nice horses get to level-up (continue rising through levels of competition),” Porterfield said. “I have lots of opportunities but they get to show more, and I get horses ready for people that are my age. It’s hard sometimes.”
Porterfield’s dedication, though, is expected to bring big things in her future. A recent opportunity she is especially thankful for was being taken by her boss to a popular horse show in Calgary, Canada, called Spruce Meadows.
“There are absolutely opportunities, but it’s a lot of hard work to get there,” Niculescu said. “You have to want to do the things that are not fun, the things that other kids don’t want to do. You have to want to clean the tack, and the stalls, and load horses at 4 in the morning, and take them when they come in from the horse shows at midnight, and be out here when it’s 95 degrees. That’s why Lindsey took Avery to Spruce Meadows,” Niculescu said. “Spruce Meadows is one of the coolest horse shows in the world, and Lindsey probably didn’t have to take Avery but Avery has absolutely earned that trip and deserves that trip.”
“Being a working student has been the most rewarding and tough experience in my life,” Porterfield said. “It’s an amazing opportunity to learn this sport inside and out. Lindsey and Tara are the perfect people to learn from not only because of their riding ability and horsemanship, but they remind me to have fun and always do this because I love it.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0312, firstname.lastname@example.org