RUSSELLVILLE - Watching the advanced girls going over their maneuvers, intermediate riders like Emily Robyn, 11, long for the day when it will be them jumping and training the horses at Wild Horse Creek Ranch.
"I can't wait to be out there," she said.
For these girls who are part of the year-round 4-H Club Horse Crazies, the summer weekday camps and the weekend lessons through the school year, horses are a passion.
On Anne Thill's 250 acres, they quickly learned responsibility is absolute.
These girls know the rules, follow directions and tackle any task required. Much of their time is spent tending to the horses' needs - health, grooming and stalls.
It's all part of the process that leads them to the back of their beloved animals.
"Out of seven hours in a day here, we ride for two and the other five hours we're doing chores and such," Robyn said.
For the beginners and
intermediates, they recognize they have a long way to go. But that doesn't discourage them. They love being around the horses.
Robyn has enjoyed time with these horses since age 4.
"My parents don't have horses, but it's something that I love," Robyn said.
Fellow intermediates Molly and Olivia Schulte have the same story, though they are hopeful they may build a barn and have a horse of their own in the near future.
"I was just born with that horse gene," said Molly Schulte, 13.
Cleaning manure from the stalls or checking the horse over for ticks - even the unpleasant tasks the girls take up without pause.
When these intermediates rise to the advanced courses, they'll begin training the beginning horses and will be able to compete in shows.
"But it's not about the shows as much as it is just riding the horse and doing the tricks," Robyn said.
Molly Schulte agreed.
"It's amazing to be on a horse; once you get on, you don't want to get off," Schulte said.
At Wild Horse Creek Ranch, the girls know the personality of each horse and can tell its temperament from day to day.
Rhett is a go-go girl while Humphrey is a little slower. Cash and Dottie have a lot of energy, but they listen well.
An English-style rider communicates primarily through their leg movements, which must be mastered before moving on to the tricks and jumps.
"It's not as easy as it looks," Molly Schulte said.
Robyn agreed she knows she's not ready for the two-feet-high poles the advanced girls are jumping.
"I'm sure I could hold on, but it would not be very pretty," she said.
Almost as much as the riders enjoy their horses, they appreciate Thill's instruction.
She shouts quick, clever reminders as the girls work with their horses. And it's not surprising when she breaks into German or French while giving instruction.
"They teach a lot here," said advanced rider Katy Allen, 12.
And it's not just about horses.
"I've learned common sense and control that helps me in school a lot," said Kendall Prasad, 15, another advanced rider.
What the girls also find at the ranch is friendship, with the horses and with each other.
"I'm not really a sport person, and I've always followed my own path," Prasad said. "Here, the horses are our friends and everyone accepts you the way you are."
That's not to say there aren't difficult personalities.
Laura Rockers, 15, has been given the challenge of training Riley Horse.
"She likes to buck, and some things make her angry, but she's really fast," Rockers said.
With 10 years of riding experience, Rockers finds it interesting beginners are now riding horses which she helped train.
"There's a variety of issues you learn to deal with," Rockers said. "You adjust; you learn to be a good rider."
The ranch's relationship with William Woods University also benefits the young riders as much as the select horses, which need more open pasture.
The ranch also participates in fundraisers and community service activities, including therapeutic riding sessions.
With rising costs for housing and care of horses, Thill is concerned about the future.
"I don't want to see horses wind up in a museum," she said. "This is my passion, my calling."
For 32 years, Thill's been making a difference, one rider at a time.
Like Molly Schulte said, "it's not an option to live without horses."
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