TRAVERSE CITY — Paige Matthies sat on a tack box and looked out at the sudden downpour — with occasional flashes of lightning — that threatened to wash out morning competition at the Horse Shows by the Bay Equestrian Festival.
"You gotta love rain," said Matthies, 11, of Lake Leelanau. "It's awful for riding. It makes the footing all weird."
Clad in light-colored riding breeches, dark boots and a lavender shirt, Matthies seemed more cheerful than dismayed. And it's no wonder. She and her fellow riders from Northern Pines Farm in Maple City had already won many of the 150 or so ribbons and championships they would eventually take home after four weeks of competition at the festival, beating out dozens of riders from across the U.S. and Canada.
"They're like gymnasts," said trainer and barn owner Melissa Hirt, who established the state-of-the-art hunter/jumper facility in 2000. "They have to have their game face on for this show all week, not just a day. It is, start to finish, preparing and studying their courses and caring for their horses."
Hirt is unabashedly proud of her riders, whom she helps groom for spots on NCAA equestrian teams and for equine careers. Some receive full-ride college scholarships based in part on their performances at top-ranked shows like Horse Shows by the Bay, she said.
But her desire to help them move up through the ranks goes much deeper.
"I have a very soft spot for kids who want to do this sport," said Hirt, whose barn boasts an indoor riding facility, professionally-trained school horses and equipment like equine treadmills and magnetic and laser therapy. "My path is to help these girls get through high school, develop friendships, passion. We are competitive, but more important is to build relationships."
Matthies, a sixth-grader at Leland Public Schools, spends most of her free time at the barn, which provides jumping lessons and breeds, trains, shows, sells and leases horses. Riders also compete in shows, large and small, all over the Midwest and in Florida, for as many as 20 weeks a year.
"I feel like I fit in well," said Matthies, of the camaraderie the sport promotes. "I can go to something and feel like I'm not going to be left out."
That's the uniqueness of the sport, said Hirt, a nationally-recognized equine professional who competes in Grand Prix events with her own horses as she travels with her students.
"We have older people, younger kids, and when they're on a horse, they're equal," she said, adding that they also work side-by-side in the barn. "It gives the kids respect for adults."
Ayla Downer, 6, is one of the facility's youngest riders. Looking every bit her age in pink-and-black leopard-print riding gloves and a pint-sized helmet, the Glen Loomis Montessori student used a step stool to mount her practice pony, Riley, in preparation for Horse Shows by the Bay competition later in the week.
Madison Lawton has been riding since she was 4 and has leased or owned a horse since. The Traverse City West Senior High senior hopes to earn a spot in a NCAA Division 1 equestrian program at Baylor University, Southern Methodist University or the University of Georgia.
Varsity hopefuls are scouted as early as their freshman year in high school, which is why competition in prestigious shows like Horse Shows by the Bay is so important, she and Hirt said.
"They like to see you on different horses and do different things because in college you'll never ride the same horse twice and you're never on the horse before you ride," said Lawton, 17, who wants to become a horse trainer or an equine veterinarian or genetics vet.
Hirt said Maple Pines Farm's current crop of riders is not only one of her most talented groups but also one of her most intellectual ones.
"I'm so excited for the next two or three years," she said. "I don't know how we can beat this group, but we have a big group of up-and-coming young riders."