CLAIM TO FAME
Lauren Wheeler, 13, began riding horses competitively for Little River Equestrian two years ago. Last year, she placed second in future beginner horsemanship in her class at the 2011 Interscholastic Equestrian Association National Finals in Maryland.
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When she was younger, Lauren Wheeler was intimidated by horses. Now, as a competitive equestrian, she bends them to her will.
Lauren, 13, said her first memory of horses was of several living in a field behind her Hixson home when she was 3. Although she was infatuated, their size made her nervous.
"I always thought they were really tall because I was really short when I was little," she said. "They were scary at first.
"When I first rode one, I was terrified of horses, so it wasn't really enjoyable."
With time, and a few growth spurts, however, Lauren found the courage to match her passion. By 8, she began competing (or showing) at events hosted by Chattanooga area saddle clubs.
For the last two years, Lauren has been riding on a team for Little River Equestrian, a horse facility located on Lookout Mountain.
During her first year of competition as a sixth grader, she scored high enough in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association regional competition to advance to the Zone 4 championships, riding against teams from six Southeastern states.
This year, she progressed even further to compete in the IEA National Finals in Maryland. There, she placed second in future beginner horesmanship among Western-style riders.
Unlike many equestrian shows, IEA competitions pair riders with horses they have never ridden before. Contestants are judged on the quality of their riding, including posture and control of the animal.
Lauren received her first horse, Prince, for her fifth-grade graduation. Earlier this year, she began training a second, Mattie, for use as a show horse at non-IEA events.
Lauren said she enjoys the challenge of constantly having to create a bond of trust with unfamiliar horses.
"I liked the whole point of showing horses you don't know, to increase your riding level," Lauren said. "You have the one way you ride a horse that you have burned into your brain, and you have to work with that when you get on the horse because they're all different."
As a result of riding in IEA events, Lauren said she has developed a sense of how to build a relationship with horses to get the most out of them.
That skill is born of determination, said Amy Lenier, Lauren's coach at Little River.
"She's a very effective rider, as far as gentling the horse and knowing how to put them in the right frame (of mind) to do their best," Lenier said. "It really just takes a lot of experience and having a feel for it."
When Lauren was younger, her mother, Cindy Wheeler, said she was convinced the love of horses, like earlier interest in softball and cheerleading, was just a temporary phase.
Thinking Lauren would grow out of her infatuation, Wheeler and her husband, Mark Wheeler, placed increasingly large amounts of responsibility on their daughter before they would consider buying a horse.
Lauren persisted, however, and eventually, they gave in. Despite the cost of upkeep for two horses, however, it's a decision Wheeler said she doesn't regret in the slightest.
"I think it's a very good thing for her," she said. "It teaches [her] responsibility. Seeing her enjoy it makes it worth it. I truly believe this is what she wants to do."