In the sport of pole bending, a rider must be one with her horse and move with extreme grace and focus.
One little mistake and any hopes of winning are dashed as the margin for error is nil in the popular high school rodeo event that has riders weave their steeds through six poles and back again as quickly as possible.
It’s taken three years, but Bear River junior Emma Jones has reached the optimum level of chemistry a rider needs with her horse, and it has paid off.
The 16-year-old Jones recently claimed the California High School Rodeo Association state championship after three strong runs that turned the once-perceived underdog into a state champ.
“I wasn’t even supposed to make it to state this year,” said Jones, who barely qualified for the state rodeo in Bishop June 8-15.
Five riders from District 3, which includes the Bear River area, qualify for the state rodeo, and Jones was the fifth and final member to earn a spot. This also put her at a disadvantage because points from the district rodeos roll over into the state scoring.
“I didn’t expect too much, so I came into it a little calmer,” Jones said. “I had the mindset that this was OK. I just want to represent my district and do the best I can. Then ‘pshooo’ — she was off.”
Jones and her horse, Cowboy Twinkle or “Sage,” impressed through the “long gos” or first two rounds, taking third and second place in the heats, advancing her to the “short go,” where she squared off against the best 15 from around California.
Jones ran a clean and precise short go, finishing first with a time of 21.118 seconds and earning the state title, which came with a prize saddle, a championship belt buckle and the right to compete at the National High School championships July 12 in Rock Springs, Wyo.
“Winning came as a shock,” Jones said. “It still hits me sometimes, and I will be like, ‘Whoa, I won state.’”
I’ve put in a lot of work this year not only with rodeo but with school, and I’m really fortunate to have a great trainer and a great source of support from my family, friends and boyfriend. They have been there for me through every step. They have been my support system through all of it, and winning gave me the feeling it wasn’t all in vain. It made me feel pretty good about accepting that help.”
Jones’ trainer, Teri Cochran of TC Stables in Loomis, said the sport of pole bending is very technical and takes a strong rider who has a tight connection to her horse.
“It’s like a dance,” Cochran said. “You have to become one with your partner.”
The margin of error is slim with the top 10 finishers notching times within a second of each other, and the penalty for nicking a pole is five seconds — meaning riders have to be perfect to have a chance.
“A pole bender basically has 12 chances to make a mistake,” Cochran said. “(Jones) makes it look easy. She has really developed her horseman’s skills.”
Cochran trains several horse benders from District 3, three of which were in the top seven at the state championships.
Now that the shock of winning the state title is slowly wearing off of Jones, whose older brother Brett Bush is a bull rider, turns her attention to the national rodeo, which is less than a month away.
“For nationals, I want to go there and look good for California rodeo,” Jones said. “California Rodeo is pretty strong, but it will be pretty hard to go out there and compete with those Texas girls that are running 19 seconds and the girls in Wyoming who are also running 19. They’re pretty dang good. But I just want to go out and make the best run I can. I don’t know that I can win, but if I’m going in there representing California, I’m going to make the best run I can.”
Jones’ best time is 20.7 seconds.
For Jones, her results are based on her frame of mind as pole bending is a very mental sport, she said.
“Honestly, I think it’s a lot of mental,” she said. “You could have the most expensive horse out there and be the best rider and have the best trainer, but if you don’t have everything click and your head is not in it, you will clip a pole or get disqualified or get a penalty. And everyone handles that stress differently. It’s all about that mental game.”
Jones said she keeps her mental game tight by having a good breakfast the day of an event, forcing herself to have a good day and then listening to her pump-up playlist, which features Johnny Cash, Motley Crue and Hinder with Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” mixed in.
The trek to Wyoming and the shot at competing on a national level does come with a hefty cost, and Jones is fundraising. Anyone interested in contributing to her venture can contact her at email@example.com.
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.