Gymkhana queen at home in the arena
WRITTEN BY Julie Drake
Sarah Nelson sat on her first horse before she could walk.
The 16-year-old daughter of Brett and Jennifer Nelson of Palmdale started taking her first horse-riding lessons when she was 8 years old.
Two years later, Sarah started competing in gymkhana, a term for timed events on horseback such as barrel racing and pole bending.
Sarah won the Junior Miss Leona Valley Gymkhana Queen title, and is the 2014 Miss Leona Valley Gymkhana Queen. As a gymkhana queen Sarah promotes gymkhanas, as well the Western way of life and caring for the animals.
“We travel around the Antelope Valley through parades, and we run flags through various other gymkhana locations,” Sarah said.
She also went to Las Vegas, where she met rodeo star Tuf Cooper.
“He’s the youngest millionaire in rodeo. ... He wore my crown, so it was pretty great.”
Sarah got pictures.
“I don’t let anybody wear it now,” Sarah said, smiling.
Sarah’s reign will end in October.
Her love of horses can be attributed to her father. Sarah’s mother doesn’t ride.
“I don’t get it, I don’t understand it, I don’t appreciate them nearly like I should, but my husband has been riding since he was young,” Jennifer said.
Jennifer added that what she most enjoys about her daughter’s involvement with gymkhana and high school rodeo are the people.
“I think they just make nice people,” Jennifer said. “Your queen family is amazing.”
“My queen sisters are my sisters,” said Sarah, who has one older brother, two younger brothers and a half-sister in college.
Sarah also competes in high school rodeo, which is more competitive than gymkhana.
Gymkhana is more focused on speed events, Sarah said, while rodeo includes roughstock events such as calf tying and calf roping. High school rodeo also includes goat tying for girls, where the competitor runs down the goat, hops off her horse, and ties three of the goat’s legs together.
Sarah has four horses: her father’s horse, Skip, the same horse she rode when she won her title; Zanna, the horse she rides for barrel racing; Taz, the “pole bending” horse; and Lucky, the “horse that got it all started for me.”
“This is the very first story I ever remember,” Sarah began.
Sarah was riding Lucky, who, being a good horse, was “being perfect, because he’s a good horse.”
But the then-6-year-old Sarah was scared. When her father went to open the gate at the ranch, she cautioned him not to open it.
“Dad, don’t open the gate, he’s going to run, he’s going to run,” Sarah recalled saying.
Well, Dad opened the gate, and Lucky ran up the hill and back into his stall. A startled Sarah jumped off right away.
“My dad told me that if I don’t get back on right now, then I’m never getting back on again,” Sarah said. “So, I got back on.”
Mom Jennifer said she isn’t surprised by Sarah’s success because all of her children have strong personalities where when they set their minds to something they tend to make it happen.
“When she first started, it required her to work at a ranch every weekend and clean stalls and clean bunny cages and pick up after washing pigs,” Jennifer said.
Mom didn’t think Sarah would enjoy the grunt work.
“She would come home filthy, and she would smell terrible. But she loved it, and she couldn’t wait until the next weekend when she could go back to work,” Jennifer said. “It’s her dream, it’s her passion, it’s what makes her happiest. She would rather be at a ranch than anywhere else, and I’m just fine with that.”
Sarah said both of her parents were reluctant to let her get her first horse.
“It took a lot of convincing,” Sarah said.
She worked at the ranch where Lucky was kept in exchange for lessons.
Sarah has worked for everything she’s ever gotten, Jennifer said, adding, “If she is willing to work hard to make it happen then we support her.”
Sara, who will be a senior at Quartz Hill High School next year, taught herself how to pole vault and went to CIF her first year in the sport. Sarah considered sprinting, at first, but acknowledged she isn’t so quick on the track.
“I don’t want to go and compete and not win,” she said.
So when a friend encouraged her to try the pole vault, Sarah did. She watched videos on YouTube for tips and other clues to improve. But she said she “slacked off” toward the end of the year because she focused more on rodeo.
Sarah hopes to attend a college for rodeo, and said she needs to work with her horses so they can “pull better times.”
California State University, San Louis Obispo, has one of the best college rodeo teams, Sarah said.
“For me, what I look for in a college is they have to have a really good vet program because I want to be a vet, so I have to find a balance,” she said.
Sarah hopes to continue with rodeo and barrel racing after college, a goal that might see her move to Texas some day.
“California is an easier circuit because it’s smaller, but I like more competition so I would want to go to Texas just because I like to push myself,” she said.
Her next goal is to learn how to ride a bull, mom Jennifer said.
“I can ride a steer,” Sarah said.
Sarah recently started to volunteer for Saddle Up Therapeutic Riding Stables and will exercise the horses for them.
In September, Sarah said the gymkhana queens hope to do a poker run in Leona Valley to raise money to sponsor Nugget, a horse donated to the program by Tom and Judy Brundage, the couple who started the Leona Valley gymkhana pageant. The queens hope to sponsor Nugget for a year.