New kid at the Mills rides fearlessly

June 18

When 14-year-old Leandra Paasch returns to her horse Tovaar outside the Hunter Green stalls on the Jensen Mills Meadow, a half-dozen people are already surrounding the Dutch Warmblood. Her mother, Tedi, the Mount Hood Pony Club trainer is there, straightening the horse's reins.

Her friend and fellow Pony Club member Mary Beth Gray is cleaning Tovaar's hooves. A couple of young high school boys are also there, wearing Gothic black, with earrings and high socks. They are here to watch Paasch ride Tovaar in practice.

The group stands around the brown and white pinto for a few minutes, skimming small talk about the competition, before Tedi finally asks her daughter if she is going to ride.

“Yeah,” Leandra says flatly.

The Hood River girl then hops on Tovaar and leads the small group through the rows of canvas stalls filled with neighing, gnawing and slumbering horses and beside the tents, under which the horses' trainers are neighing on cell phones, gnawing on sandwiches and slumbering on cots.

They are weaving their ways toward the Jumping arena, where a score of equestrians are already wandering around the course, congratulating their horses or rebuking them for their performances.

Among them is former Olympian, Pan-Am and Canadian champion Kevin Freeman and two-year pro Philappa Fournier.

They are two of the 300 competitors who have congregated here from California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, British Columbia and Nevada for five days of equestrian competition, one of the first in a summer-long string of them throughout the West Coast.

Organizers have divided these 300 competitors into 50 different divisions, representing age, skill and class.

Leandra will be competing in the Children's Jumper class against about 11 others, who have devoted their athletic lives to these horses, these rails.

Leandra, herself, has been riding since she was six months old, just old enough for her mom to lead her around the pasture on the back of a mild-tempered horse. She strayed from her mother's protective hand at 2 and began jumping at 6.

She has been a devout Pony Club member ever since, working her way from the Pony Club's beginning D1 category up to the C2, all under the analytical eye of her trainer and mother.

“We used to get in a lot of fights,” Leandra said. “But we get along really well now. She's like one of my best friends.”

Today, she is leading her mother and the small group of friends out to the practice greens, where they halt on the border between the two arenas, near the tented table from which the red-headed announcer blares each competitor’s score. From there, her friends and mother watch as Leandra warms her horse into a light gallop until Tedi motions Leandra to jump her first fence. As Leandra steers Tovaar around the course, Tedi walks toward her daughter’s target with her eyes prepared to capture any momentary lapse in Leandra’s technique.

Most of Leandra's and Tovaar’s competition experience comes from what she calls the “Three Day'ers,” one day of Dressage, one day of Cross Country and one day of Stadium Riding.

She’s competed in the Hood River Classic just one time, back in 2001, in the Hunter category. In all, she figures she's competed in about 30 events.

She's jumped the schooling fence less than just four times when the red-headed announcer offers a competition spot to any rider.

Tedi looks over to Leandra.

“You ready?” she calls. “You want to go? They’ve got a spot open.”

“Yeah, sure,” Leandra says.

Just like that, Leandra is competing.

Leandra bows over her panting horse, finger outstretched, tracing her route through the course, while listening to her mother's critiques.

“You can't kick him like that.”

Leandra nods.

“You ready?” Tedi asks. “You sure?”

Leandra nods. “Yeah. I'm ready.”

As Leandra trots into the course, Tedi's movements become more fidgity, slightly more erratic.

“I get horribly nervous,” Tedi says. “She (Leandra) doesn't care.”

Judges will evaluate Leandra's ride based upon control and time, with more priority given to control. A good time with poor control is not quite as good as good control with a mediocre time. The easiest way to evaluate this is with a stopwatch and by counting how many rails the rider has knocked over, or “pulled.” Each rail the rider knocks down adds four points to his or her score.

By contrast, a rider adds three points to his or her score, if the horse refuses to jump. The more points a rider accumulates, the worse. If her score is low enough, it could propel her into a finals round. Regardless of where her score ranks in the list of 15 competitors, it will be added to her overall score for the next four days. In all, Leandra will compete 10 times.

Leandra's time doesn't start until she has cleared the seventh gate, the last gate. This somewhat rare format gives her the luxury of focusing on control without worrying about time. But it doesn’t work to her advantage. Her horse accelerates after clearing the first fence.

“Slow him down,” Tedi screams as Leandra approaches the third fence.

But Tovaar's excitement persists into that obstacle, where his front leg stumbles on the top rail, dropping it to the ground.

“Oh man,” Tedi murmurs.

Leandra completed the course without committing any of the six faults that would have eliminated her. But three rails lie on the ground.

“I pulled three rails,” she says. “That's pretty bad. That's the worst ride I've had in a while and pretty much everybody was here to see it: The lady videotaping, the neighbor ferrier, my friend John.”

She shakes her head slightly.

“You let him get away from you,” her mother tells her.

“You have to slow him down.”

Leandra drops her head to her chest for a moment, but long enough for a concerned mother to notice.

“It wasn’t a bad ride,” her mother eases her. “Not really.”

****

Leandra pulled just one rail in her two events the next day, Thursday. She will continue to compete until Sunday, along with the 300 other competitors.

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