Riding tall near Tonganoxie
The horse's hooves thump on the soft dirt of the arena at Shamrock Farm.
It is a blue-sky winter afternoon near Leavenworth, quiet save for horse's hoofbeats and an occasional passing car.
As Sara Shockey rides her quarter horse, Fritz, around the ring, Alice Huey keeps a close watch, occasionally calling instructions to Sara, who is both her riding student and helper.
Sara takes Fritz on a half dozen jumps. Alice has set the barriers low because of a recent minor injury to Fritz's leg.
After 30 minutes or so, Fritz has had a pretty good workout, for the most part gently accepting Sara's guidance. As they finish, Sara, climbs off the horse and stands beside her horse, rubbing his neck as he turns to nuzzle her. He is a giant compared to his petite owner, who when standing on the ground is not as tall as the seat of the saddle.
Gently, Sara leads the horse back to his stall in the long barn. She removes the wraps from his legs, leaves him fresh feed and water. Then it's time to take care of the rest of the stalls, scooping up old hay, putting down fresh. When she's done, Sara will drive to her house, eat supper with her family, do her homework, go to bed. Tomorrow will be the same -- taking classes at Tonganoxie High School, working at the farm, riding Fritz, cleaning the stalls. It's a life that Sara, who has a grin that spreads across her face, says she loves.
For a rural Tonganoxie girl, winning grand champion at the American Royal used to be a dream.
But for 15-year-old Sara Shockey, it's a reality.
In November, Sara, a high school sophomore, competed in the beginner rider hunter jumper division.
In the competition, which scores points for various wins, Sara took third place in her first competition for a two-foot jump.
That was a surprise to Sara, who said the horse she was riding had backed off and then "bumped into the jump."
"We figured that I wasn't going to place," Sara said.
Then, in the second two-foot fences competition, Sara and the horse, Willy, made what she called a "perfect course," which landed her a first-place score.
And next, in the flat class, which had about 30 competitors, Sara took fifth place.
When the scores were tallied, she had the most points in her division and was named grand champion.
Not bad for a girl who's only been riding a horse for about a year and a half.
Hard at work
Sara has earned her rewards.
"I've worked so hard," Sara said. "I've ridden every day basically since I got Fritz, I got him Dec. 27 (2004) last year."
Fritz is Sara's own thoroughbred horse. But for the recent Royal competition it wasn't Fritz she rode, but Willy, who belonged to Sara's trainer and employer, Alice Howey.
Not only has Sara worked hard in her training, she's worked hard in her job.
For three years, Sara has cleaned stalls at Shamrock Farm near Leavenworth.
Every day, Monday through Thursday, she heads directly there after school.
"I clean five stalls," Sara said. "I sweep and water and then I bring in the horses."
After she finishes her work, she rides.
"I'm usually at the barn until like 7 or 7:15 ... then I come home, do my homework, eat supper and go to sleep," Sara said.
And on Saturdays, she goes back and cleans nine stalls.
Though friends have teased her about having to clean up manure, Sara doesn't mind.
"I'm like, yeah, but I get to work with horses, too," Sara said.
And the work, she said, is easy.
"It's a hobby, it's not a job," Sara said. "I'm like, hey -- I'm making money."
In fact, by saving the money she's earned, Sara bought her own thoroughbred horse herself.
"Putting on the Ritz," whom Sara affectionately calls "Fritz," cost $3,500.
She used money she made at the barn, and money she saved when she and her sister, Jessica, who is a senior at Tonganoxie High School, made from selling eggs. The girls are the daughters of Myrna and Dale Shockey. The family lives northeast of Jarbalo.
"We used to have chickens," Sara said. "Me and my sister would go out and collect eggs and we would sell them to all our neighbors. We always saved our money so we could buy something we wanted later on."
Sara's horse, Fritz, is 4 years old and originally trained in Kentucky as a race horse. But even after winning two races, he was deemed a failure.
"They thought he was too laid back," Sara said. "He was so calm."
Sara's 19-year-old trainer, Alice Howey, lives at Shamrock Farm with her parents, Gina and David Howey. Alice's mother, Gina Howey, a nationally recognized rider, is the main trainer. She teaches dressage, which is often described as "ballet on horseback."
"Sara is my first student that I've actually trained and taken to shows," Alice Howey said. "I've given lessons to my mom's kids, but Sara is my first real student."
Sara has put a lot of effort into riding, Howey said.
"She's a very hard worker," Howey said. "You can have a good trainer, but the other part of it is the student. They have to really want it, and she does."
Howey, who attends classes at Kansas City Kansas Community College and plans to become a lawyer, said she will work with Sara and Fritz in preparation for this year's upcoming competitions.
Howey trained Willy, the 13-year-old horse Sara rode in this year's American Royal. Willy's real name is "Hesa Cool Kid."
"I thought that it would be better if she rode him instead of Fritz," Howey said. "Because Willy has been to the American Royal before. ... He had a lot more experience and he would be able to make it easier for Sara and she wouldn't be as nervous."
Even so, Alice, who has since sold Willy, said she was sure Sara would put in a good showing at the royal.
"I knew that she could do it," Alice said. "But I didn't want to put pressure on her, so I just told her to do her best."
And the good work continues. Recently at a meet in Topeka, Sara received a third place award in the northeast Kansas hunter jumper division. And Alice received a second reserve grand champion.
Sara's mother, Myrna Shockey, said she and her husband have been supportive of Sara's lifelong love of horses.
"We've always encouraged our children to be unique and to do what they feel in their heart is right," Shockey said. "Because we feel like God's given them a gift in their heart. We've always encouraged them to do what God has told them in their heart to do."
Sara is determined to follow her goal of working with horses, no matter the obstacles.
For instance, last June she was hurt in a car accident, and according to her mother, X-rays showed Sara had broken her arm. Two weeks later she was back in the saddle.
"We had a show that weekend," Sara said. "I went to the show, I got first and third in that show and champion.
Sara spends her free time reading or hanging out with her boyfriend, and her sister, whom she describes as "my best friend."
And, she's already planned her activities for this year.
"I'm going to be jumping two-foot at the Northeast Kansas Hunter Association -- on Fritz," Sara said.
And later in the year, she said, she and Fritz will advance to the 2-foot, 6-inch competition.
And someday she plans to go higher.
"I want to grow up and I want to be jumping five foot, maybe six foot," Sara said. "I'm going to try to go to the Olympics."
Along the way, she plans to attend college at a university that has a hunter jumping team.
And still later, she wants to be a trainer.
"I want to help people like me who want to learn and start them off," Sara said.
And someday, when she's older, she plans to study to become a veterinarian.
But for now, every day is a working day for Sara.
For instance, she worked on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
"I'm going to work basically every day. I don't complain because if I didn't work, I wouldn't have the money for the boarding and I need the money to keep Fritz."
And one might wonder if, at the end of the week, anything is left for Sara. But that's not a concern to the teenager, who describes herself as extremely frugal. After all, she's already used her hard-earned and well-saved money to buy her first horse, Freckles, her second horse, Fritz, and a car.
"I have a little bit left over," Sara said, giggling. "I use that for my gas because I have to drive back and forth to work every day."