'With my horses, it's a friendship'
Ears forward, eyes gentle, the mare nodded her big brown head up and down. "I sure do," she said, as clearly as if she were speaking.
Missy pushed her nose against Jozie's cheek as the teen scratched the horse's neck. "She likes to have the right side scratched," said Jozie, who had her senior photos taken with Missy to celebrate her graduation from Western Mennonite High School in June. "Not the left side, the right one."
Horse and teen enjoy these intimate moments almost as much as they like being in the arena, competing in pole bending or keyhole races or other events at Western Horsemen of Oregon shows.
Right now they can be together any time. Missy's stall and pastures lie just a few yards from Jozie's house south of McMinnville.
This fall, they'll they'll miss each other, as Jozie heads off to college. She won't be far away, though.
"I chose Western Oregon University so I can be nearby," she said. "I can come home from Monmouth to ride anytime."
Jozie couldn't tear herself away from horses even if she wanted to.
"I love horses," she said. "I'm drawn to them.
"They're strong and large, but still trust me. I love to watch them play, try things with them, teach them tricks."
In high school, Jozie was involved in many things and served as president of her class. But she also was teased, affectionately, for talking almost exclusively about equine matters.
At graduation, classmates predicted she would someday run a horse camp for young people. That could happen, she said, although her immediate plan is to study nursing and work with women's health or orphanages in Third World countries.
"With my horses, it's a friendship," she said. "I want to spend time with them. My human friends understand my priorities."
Horses have been part of her family for generations.
Her grandfather grew up on a cattle farm in North Dakota. He and her grandmother got into gaming -- the collective term for competitive riding activities such as pattern and speed racing -- in the mid-1970s. They joined the WHO, which continues to be part of her family's life.
Her aunt, Sharon Woods, was a WHO Interstate queen, chosen from Oregon and Washington contestants for her horsemanship skills and other talents. Her mother, Wendy Larson, was an Interstate princess.
Her mother and father, Ken, met at Western Horsemen events when they were adolescents. Both still hold WHO records.
Although they took a break from competition for several years, they've had horses throughout their 26-year marriage.
On the land where they've lived since Josie was a toddler, the Larsons board horses and instruct other riders. Their daughter has worked in the barn and arena all her life.
At age 3, Jozie started riding her own pony -- a bay Shetland named Trigger. She had been watching her parents and their friends ride, she said, so it was natural for her to climb into the saddle as well.
She loved riding from the start. And she loved going to Western Horsemen events with her parents, enjoying the family atmosphere that attracts many generations.
In elementary and part of middle school, though, Jozie focused less on horses than on her classes and after school sports. Riding what simply a spare time activity.
Then her family acquired Teddy, a mare that helped open Jozie's eyes to what could be done in the arena.
"It's a combination of the horse and the rider," she said. "You have to be able to control your horse and know what your horse can do, and the horse has to know what it's doing."
After Teddy was sold to the St. Paul Rodeo, she began riding other competition-level horses, including her cousin's horse, Pepper.
Pepper, a 27-year-old gelding, is a champion competitor. He and Jozie teamed up to have the fastest time of teams entered in the Junior Barrels competition at the 2013 Interstate meet last August.
For winning Junior Barrels, Josie received her first buckle.
"It's a big deal," she said. "It's like a trophy, but you can show it around and wear it," recalling that she brought it to school the first day of her senior year.
Pepper also was rewarded for his performance. "He got some treats," she said.
Jozie also rides Trisha, a large paint quarterhorse mare that belongs to her father. The mare is very responsive and enjoys training, especially for the barrel and pole events, which depend on quick burst of speed and fast turns, the teen said.
But Missy, a 20-year-old quarterhorse, is Jozie's main competition mount.
"She's sassy and grumpy," Jozie said affectionately. "She's grumpy when I saddle her, then she's perky. Her eyes sparkle. She's high energy and loves to work. She's happiest in the arena."
Jozie had to use all her horsemanship skills, not to mention her natural gentleness, to win Missy over when they first met.
The mare had been born and raised on a farm in Washington, and had bonded closely with her owner. When her owner died suddenly, the horse was moved to a different farm and left grieving the loss of both her home and the woman she loved.
By the time Jozie met her, Missy had lost trust in humans. The Oregon teen had to prove herself and win the mare's affection.
"I'd go up to her several times a day, give her oats and love on her, scratching her ears, her neck," Jozie said. "She needed to see she could trust me."
Soon, Missy was nodding when Jozie asked, "Do you love me?"
In addition to winning the mare's trust, Jozie had to learn about the horse. At first, she said, she let Missy have her head and go through her paces so she could observe how the horse moved and figure out what needed adjusting.
"It's funny," she said. "All the horses have different personalities and like different things."
She discovered, for instance, that Missy doesn't like barrel racing. Jozie suspects it's because she's on the small side, with short legs.
On the other hand, the mare enjoys poles and keyhole events that depend on quick turns, which are better suited to her body type.
Missy and Jozie's other horses act a little differently in the show ring than they do in the training arena. 'They show off," she said.
That's especially true at the WHO Interstate meet, in which riders from Oregon and Washington compete to represent themselves and their states.
Her mother describes Interstate as "the Super Bowl" of riding competitions. About 250 riders compete in the three-day meet, held at the Clark County Fairgrounds in Washington. The event draws hundreds of spectators, as well.
Jozie noted, "The horses know the Interstate is a higher level of competition, and they step higher and run faster," she said.
Riders must step up their game, as well, she said. "A rider has to be focused," she said.
But that's where all the training pays off. After they work together for months, rider and horse are a team.
"You kinda get a sixth sense for each other," she said. "It becomes natural to feel them, move with them."
Jozie recently got back into the saddle after several weeks off. She suffered a concussion, some pulled muscles and other injuries in a car wreck.
For a while, the closest she could get to riding was watching the horses from her window.
She's happy to be riding again.
"It hurts, but that's OK," she said, clearly pleased to be doing what she loves. "Everything happens for a reason."
She hopes to qualify this month to enter the 2014 Interstate competition, to be held Aug. 29-31.
Jozie said the horses have noticed her fragile condition.
"They're more mellow, more lovey," she said. "Especially Missy, since we're in tune. She's definitely babying me."
Together, they're working on getting into top shape. Jozie said she's concentrating on trotting the horses to strengthen their muscles and tendons. That way, they're less likely to get hurt, she said.
In addition to riding, Jozie has been taking part in activities as one of three 2014 Interstate princesses, two of them from Oregon and one from Washington. She's hoping to named queen at the August event.
The title would cap off years of activity with WHO.
"WHO is a second family, with so many people who are strong in their faith," said Jozie, explaining that she grew up in a strong Christian home. "Everywhere you turn, it's positive and uplifting.
"When I was young, to me, it was just horse shows," she said. "But then I realized everyone there helped me, helped each other. It's just been over the past couple years I've really understood how much it means to me."
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or email@example.com.
After her sophomore year, she went to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to spend a week working at an Amish dairy. It was amazing experience, she said.
She rose at 5 a.m. and donned modest clothing — pants and a shirt, in her case, although the Amish girls wore long dresses. Then she helped milk cows, plant corn and harvest alfalfa until dark.
She was already used to working on her family's horse-boarding facility, where she cleans stalls, rides and grooms horses. But the Amish showed her how easy she had it.
"And I thought I was a hard worker!" she said, marveling at her host family's endurance.
Since she had experience with horses, she was allowed to drive the six-horse team that pulled carts through the fields. "Usually, women don't do that kind of work," she said.
The most difficult thing for her to get used to was the food. Her host family served up everything in a single bowl, topped with warm milk.
On the other hand, she loved all the fresh fruits and home-baked or home-preserved items.
She missed electricity.
"The house was hot, no fans or air conditioning," she said. "I'd try to turn on a light, but there wasn't even a switch.
"It made me appreciate our light and air, but I really admire the Amish people's simple way of life, the obedience of the children and how strong their faith is."