Young equestrian wins competition by using soft touch


A local girl recently had quite a ride with a young mustang — without ever getting in the saddle.

On Nov. 29, Sophia Schmidt, 17, and a horse she adopted, CoCo~Cola, won the Southern California Youth and Yearling Mustang Challenge at the Lake Perris Fairgrounds.

As part of the event, Sophia and other youths from California adopted young wild horses through the Bureau of Land Management and the Mustang Heritage Foundation. The youths trained them from the ground; “gentled” them over a 60-day period; and competed for the titles of “champion” and “Most Adoptable Mustang” and other prizes.

Afterward, the public had the opportunity to bid on and adopt several of these mustangs.

It was a new experience for Sophia, who has been around horses since age 7. Starting with her mom’s Arabian, Rio, and then her first horse, Domino (believed to be a mustang/Quarter horse mix), the Encinitas resident learned many important areas of horse ownership. Sophia continued to hone her skills over the years through riding lessons and clinics.

Eventually, after dabbling in and observing many equine disciplines, she realized she wanted to excel in a softer way of handling horses, a way, she said, that “emphasizes gentleness rather than performance.”

Intrigued by the idea of creating a stronger bond between horse and handler, Sophia began practicing such techniques on her horse at the time, Domino. She also found that her current horse, a 9-year-old dunskin Quarter horse gelding named Stars Music Mac (nicknamed “Coda”), responded very well to this style of horsemanship.

So when she learned about the Southern California Youth and Yearling Mustang Challenge, Sophia decided to take things to another level.

Since the challenge is limited to ages 8-17 and she would no longer be eligible to compete as of April, “I jumped on the opportunity,” she said.

The first step of the challenge — hosted by Sue Watkins Horsemanship and funded by the Mustang Heritage Foundation — was for participants to travel to a Bureau of Land Management wild horse facility to select their horses. Those from Northern California went to the corrals in Litchfield, while Southern Californians had planned to travel to Ridgecrest.

However, Sophia said that about 15 horses were brought to a satellite adoption facility in Redlands to help cut travel time for the Southern California youths.

When the participants arrived at the corrals, they took time to observe the mustangs. Right away, a bay filly from Fish Lake Valley, Nev., caught Sophia’s eye.

“I loved that she was very ‘put together,’ and I liked her face,” she said.

The filly wasn’t necessarily flashy, but she seemed intellectual when interacting with the herd and wasn’t getting in “trouble,” Sophia noted. Ironically, the horse was the only one in the group born wild, she said.

Sophia speculated that because the horse seemed to pose more of a challenge — being used to a herd more than people — the other participants didn’t seem to be as interested in the filly.

It worked out perfectly for Sophia, because although she was among the last to select a horse, she got her first choice.

Her chosen mustang — which she named CoCo~Cola (or Cola) — was carefully loaded into a trailer by BLM staff and brought to the Olivenhain home of family friends Liz and Mark Brolaski. Once Cola was acclimated to domestic life and ready for more socialization, Sophia was able to take her to Rancho East in Rancho Santa Fe, where Sophia has ridden and trained almost exclusively since 2007.

Over the 60-day period, Sophia spent many hours with Cola — waking up at 5:30 a.m. daily to feed her and clean her corral, then spending several hours after school training her, while juggling homework and extracurricular activities.

During the training, Sophia initially implemented techniques and ideals she learned from her Mustang Challenge host, Watkins. It wasn’t long before she was using the core horsemanship skills she had been learning with her mentor, Juliet Hendershot, and clinician Buck Brannaman. All the training was done with Sophia working from the ground and a portion from sitting on a fence.

One of the keys was gaining Cola’s trust, and once Sophia had that, “(Cola) would do anything for her,” said Sophia’s mother, Geanna Schmidt.

Sophia said the most difficult part was getting Cola to completely “hook on” to her.

“My goal was for her to be willing to walk, jog, stop and back up right in time with my movement,” she said. “Juliet Hendershot, one of my great mentors, offered to lead (pony) Cola off of her horse. Cola couldn’t resist the power of Juliet’s horse the same way she would occasionally resist me, so eventually she gave up trying, and understood. From then on, she walked right next to me every time I was with her.”

And Cola proved to be a willing “student.”

“There were easy parts all along the way with Cola because whenever I thought she was ready to try something new, she always was,” Sophia said. “She loved to jump, take the bit, pick up her feet, and other things that were unexpectedly easy for a wild horse to do.”

Sophia learned that working with a wild horse is both easier and harder than working with a domestic horse.

“A wild horse has never experienced anything remotely close to what you are asking them to do, making them infinitely more sensitive and responsive,” she said.

By the end of the 60 days, the former wild horse accepted baths, ropes and saddles, along with being tied, having her feet trimmed and using a soft bit. She became used to flapping flags and other movements and objects often scary to a horse, and was able to load into a trailer with the point of a finger.

Then it was competition time, and Sophia admitted she was nervous going into it.

The challenge finals event — held Nov. 29 — began with three qualifying classes: Handling and Body Conditioning (similar to showmanship), In-Hand Trail Obstacle Pattern, and Horsemanship. Points were awarded to the top finishers in each class, and the highest number of points advanced to the final Freestyle class.

Cola and Sophia won the Handling and Body Conditioning and trail obstacle classes, and finished second in Horsemanship.

In the Freestyle, while many of the competitors dressed in costumes, Sophia and Cola focused on physical maneuvers to impress the judges — they wove between poles and tires, went over small jumps, kicked a yoga ball and roped with a lariat, all in time to music.

The routine clearly impressed the judges, as Sophia and Cola were named champions of the competition. Among the prizes they received were a goodie bag; a wild rag (similar to a bandana); $400; a belt buckle; a neck sash for Cola; and the honorable Mustang Ambassador Award, which gives Sophia and Cola the opportunity to represent BLM wild horses and the Mustang Heritage Foundation at the Horse Expo Pomona in January.

The victory came as a pleasant surprise to Sophia, who reiterated that her filly was absolutely wild 60 days before the show.

“I thought it was really cool,” she said. “I really believed we would be fifth or sixth.

“She won champion, and I’m very proud of my little girl for having blown away my expectations. Thank you to all of our incredible youth trainers, judges, sponsors and parents for making it such an amazing experience!”

Unfortunately, Sophia wasn’t able to keep CoCo~Cola after the 60 days, citing costs and the fact that she still has Coda to keep fit and train. Cola was adopted by Dusty Jeans Ranch in Norco.

“Overall, the experience was nothing short of amazing,” Sophia said. “Naturally, I’m not a very competitive person, so I wasn’t going into the competition to win as much as I was to give a horse a good start in life. I never expected to bond with a wild animal so well just over 60 days, and letting her go was by far the hardest part when it was all over.”

In the meantime, there are plans for Sophia and Cola to reunite at the January horse expo if their youth exhibit schedules allow.

And the San Dieguito High School Academy senior — whose family has lived in Encinitas for five generations and owns Schmidt Electric — has plenty of additional activities to keep her busy. She’s president of the San Diego County 4-H Equine Education Advisory Committee, and is a member of the San Dieguito 4-H Club, the San Dieguito Riders and the National Honor Student Society. Sophia also enjoys cooking, reading and stand-up paddleboarding.

She is also looking ahead to college: She already has been accepted to Montana State, and has applied to schools renowned for their agricultural programs such as UC Davis and University of Kentucky. Sophia said she plans to major in animal or equine sciences.

“She’s very humble — I love that about her,” said Geanna Schmidt. “She keeps growing, and is always learning something new. I’m incredibly proud of her.”