by Timothy Martin
Visit the home of Jim and Marilyn Irons - up in the tiny town of Dinsmore in the shadow of South Fork Mountain - and you might hear a thumping from out back. Trace the sound to its origin and you will find horses. Where you find horses, you will likely find 14-year-old Kimberly Irons.
It's Kimberly's job to feed and water the animals, clean their stalls and tend to a multitude of other daily horse-related chores. Hard work, yes, but you won't hear her complain. In fact, there is nothing Kimberly enjoys more than caring for horses - expect maybe riding them.
"Kimberly grew up around horses," her mother Marilyn said. "She had a Shetland pony when she was 2 years old. When she was 3 - an age when other kids are being led around by their parents - Kimberly was barrel racing. By the time she was 5, she was already competing against 18-year-olds."
It was obvious to Jim and Marilyn that their daughter had more than just a nascent interest in riding horses. Kimberly was a natural competitor. She had passion and exuberance. It was as if she were holding some kind of celebration inside every time she climbed aboard her mount.
"Kimberly started competing in open shows (all breeds of horses) at age 7," said Marilyn. "At 9, she was entering quarter horse shows.
"Nancy Alto, a local quarter horse owner, spotted Kimberly during a show in Ferndale. A short time later she introduced Kimberly to Nancy Easton of Modesto. Easton became Kimberly's first trainer. "
"Trainers have an important job," said Christine Miguel, owner of CM Quarter Horses in Eureka.
"It's up to the trainer to get horse and rider moving together". That takes a lot of work.
"Every horse is different; they have individual quirks and personalities. A trainer must know everything about the horse and be able to keep it working at a high level of competition."
Miguel has been breeding, training and showing quarter horses for 10 years. "It is trainers who keep the industry going," Miguel added. "In addition to preparing horse and rider for competition, they also buy and sell horses."
"A good show horse is expensive," Miguel explained. "The top-selling stallion at last year's AQHA World Championship show went for $24,000. The top mare sold for $35,000."
Quarter horse sticker shock is a subject the Irons family knows well. In the four years Kimberly trained with Easton, they purchased a number of horses: Blanton's Booger, Skip My Chex, Ranch Olm Blondie and Sable Parker - each mount a step up in show quality from its predecessor.
"Quarter horse competition is a lot like professional auto racing," Miguel said. "In auto racing, you start with an inexpensive car and a homegrown race. After a period of time you move up to better cars and bigger races. If everything goes right, you end up with the best car and the most prestigious race. It's basically the same way with quarter horse competition."
"Each horse I had for about a year," Kimberly said, "and each year I got better. Blondie was the horse I probably learned the most on. I won two saddles and two California championships. Sable was the horse I rode in the world championship in 1992."
If quarter horse competition is your mantra, the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) World Championships is your mecca. The '92 World Championships, held in Forth Worth, Texas, was one of Irons' toughest shows. Standards were remarkably high and the field was awash with potential winners.
"No one except my mom and trainer expected me to win," Kimberly said. "When I went out there it was: `Don't expect anything at this level of competition."
World champion competition, Kimberly explained, is not for a panicky soul. It takes obdurate faith in your horse, and a stillness of mind that allows the rider to remain calm.
Armed with these qualities and a never-say-die attitude, Kimberly went on to place second out of 108 entries and win the World Reserve Champion title - the youngest person in the history of the event to achieve this, according to AQHA records.
"The person who beat me was a guy," said Kimberly, in a tone that carried just a hint of irritation. "He only beat me by three points. I think that when you have a class of all girls and one guy, and you have the same pattern (the same standard of riding quality), they will usually give it to the guy."
"My next horse was Sunshine's Paisano," said Kimberly. "I learned how to show better on Paisano. I won three saddles and eight buckles for All Around Champion on that horse."
Impressive wins? You bet. According to Miguel, placing first in any quarter horse competition is impressive.
"There is more competition in quarter horse shows than in any other breed shows," said Miguel. "It's very difficult to win at that level, to get to the top the way Kimberly has."
Quarter horses, once known as "Steel Dusts," are working horses. They are strong, versatile and easily trained animals that are used in everything from dressage to cattle work.
"Arabs are a pure breed," Miguel explained. "Thoroughbreds are from Europe. The quarter horse is the first original breed in North America."
In 1941, 75 men and women gathered on the King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas, to establish the American Quarter Horse Association. After much debate, Wimpy P-1 became the world's first registered quarter horse. "Wimpy became the breed standard," said Miguel "His low, compact, muscular body defined the quarter horse. Since then, quarter horses have been the fastest-growing breed in the country."
According to AQHA records, there were 154,000 quarter horse foals were born in 1986. Today, there are more than 4 million registered quarter horses.
"The numbers alone show you how much Kimberly has accomplished," said Miguel, "and how hard she has struggled to reach her goals."
Another person impressed with Kimberly's string of victories was Jackie Krshka of Yukon, Okla. Krshka, the quarter horse trainer's equivalent of a Zen master, began working with Irons. Over the next few months Kimberly learned showmanship, horsemanship, western riding, trail, western pleasure, English, English equitation and hunter under saddle - events that demand a great deal of concentration and stamina.
"Quarter horse contests are demanding because they are so precise," Marilyn said. She described the competition as a triumph of mental strength and physical willpower for both rider and horse. The more purely a rider shows a horse, the more horse and rider work in unison. When done correctly the feeling is as sensual as ballet.
"The alignment of the body is extremely important," Marilyn said. The leg has to be in a certain position. If there is any movement of your leg, that shows a weakness. You also don't want to show any cueing of your horse. You want subtle movements.
It's not as easy as it sounds. After hours of competition a rider's muscles become tight. Your thighs burn, your back starts to ache and you get muscle cramps. It's kind of like a soldier standing at attention for hours.
"To prepare for a show Kimberly will sit on a sawhorse and squeeze the sides," Marilyn added. "It's a good riding exercise, and 10 times harder than on a real horse."
"Kimberly exercised with a Thighmaster for awhile, but it wouldn't take enough pressure."
Training with Krshka paid off handsomely. In '94, Irons was one of five youths chosen to represent the United States in the Youth World Cup (a quarter horse competition held in Aachen, Germany). Participating were teams from Australia, Canada, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United States and, the host country, Germany.
Miguel said eight countries compete for the cup every two years. "Eight different countries compete in 10 classes of competition that demonstrate a rider's horsemanship."
"The purpose of the World Cup is to teach horsemanship, ambassadorship and friendship to the youth quarter horse riders of the world," said Skip Parker, international chairman for the event, in a telephone interview.
In the seven days of competition, the young riders on their horses went at it with the fervor of knights after the Holy Grail. When the final results were tallied, Jim and Marilyn Irons were elated. Germany had finished third, Canada was second, and the United States had captured the World Cup. Kimberly was the high point rider for the U.S. team, winning gold medals in both English equitation and western horsemanship.
For most young riders, a World Cup victory would be enough. It would be the crowning achievement, the perfect win on which to hang up the saddle. But not for Kimberly.
In August, after returning from Germany, Kimberly earned world champion in western horsemanship at the AQHA World Championship. Next she competed in the Texas Classic in Forth Worth, and won All-Around Youth Saddle and Buckle.
Other wins have followed. Many others. Then, in what has been described as the horsemanship equivalent of pulling the sword from the stone, Irons won All-Around Youth (12-14 year age) at the All American Quarter Horse Congress, adding to her legend as a magician in American quarter horse society.
The Congress show, held each year in Ohio, is the largest single breed show in the world, Miguel said. There are more than 12,000 entries, and around 30 classes of competition.
All in all, Irons has a great deal to be proud of. She has won every major quarter horse show in the United States. In the process, she has collected a total of 15 saddles and 50 buckles. But the wins have not come easy. Nor have they come cheap.
"This is a very expensive sport," Kimberly said. "My parents have worked at the Dinsmore grocery store for 23 years to help me compete."
"When we go to shows, we travel very economically, and use our frequent-flier coupons as much as possible. The horse I presently have - Sucha Smooth One - is in Oklahoma because the area is closer to most of the major shows. That way hauling is not quite as expensive."
"It does take a lot of money," Miguel said. "Entry fees are usually $12 and up per class. That runs to a few hundred every week. Training fees run around $600 a month. Total, it costs a couple of thousand dollars a month, plus traveling fees and hauling."
What attracts people to such an expensive sport?
"First, you have to love horses," Miguel said. "Second, you have to love competition."
"You have to have lots of self-confidence, too - a strong drive to show what you and your horse can do. And a pride in knowing you can do it. Quarter horse competition is an addiction, but there is a great feeling of self-accomplishment to it."
"We don't mind the cost," Marilyn said. "All we ask is that Kimberly give it her best, which she does. She's winning about everything she goes into. Kimberly is extremely competitive. She isn't intimidated by anything. For Kimberly, each show is just another hurdle to leap over."
In the tiny town of Dinsmore, a young girl tends her horses and waits patiently for the next hurdle. Will it be the Fort Worth Rodeo and Livestock Show? The Dixie Nationals? The Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show?
For Kimberly Irons it doesn't matter. The hurdles that used to seem like mountains to a 5-year-old barrel racer turned out to be no more than bumps - easily conquered.
Timothy Martin is a heating and ventilation specialist at Humboldt State University and a free-lance writer.
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