By Gregory Ball
Sabrina Wilson played soccer at various times during her high school career at La Jolla Country Day, but no sport ever interested her as much as being in the saddle on horseback.
A lifelong horsewoman, as she described herself, the 2007 graduate of La Jolla Country Day showed horses in the all-around competition for the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) for many years, and has recently made the switch to the unique sport of reining. So far, the new discipline is proving to suit her well.
Earlier this year, Wilson was named National Horse Reining Association (NHRA) Rookie of the Year by Performance Horse magazine.
"I'm really excited to have done what I've done," Wilson said. "It's been an amazing experience."
According to the NHRA Web site, reining is a judged event designed to show the athletic ability of a ranch-type horse within the confines of a show arena. In NRHA competition, contestants are required to run one of 10 approved patterns.
Each pattern includes small slow circles, large fast circles, flying lead changes, roll backs over the hocks, 360-degree spins done in place and exciting sliding stops that are the hallmark of the reining horse.
The NRHA judging system is recognized as the leading format for judging an equine event that combines technical and stylistic elements coupled with consideration of degree of difficulty. Many segments of the equine judging discipline have openly embraced the NRHA judging system.
"The idea is to have total control of the horse at all times," Wilson said. "You're not supposed to make any noise or look like you're giving the horse any audible commands.
"There are 10 patterns, and if you're off by more than six feet from where the maneuver is supposed to happen, there is a penalty."
Judging is based on a 70-point base score, with points added or deductions taken for each pattern throughout the performance. A top score might be 73. Wilson likened it to figure skating.
In November, Wilson won a national championship in her division at the NHRA Futurity in Oklahoma City.
During her freshman season at Stanford last year, she placed second in the intercollegiate AQHA open reining competition and second in the individual open western horsemanship competition.
Wilson grew up in Rancho Santa Fe, and her mother bought the family's first horse when Wilson was just 3 years old. She was showing horses on her own by the time she was 7. Both of her older sisters rode when they were younger and eventually gave it up, but Wilson enjoyed it enough to stick with it.
"I just love the horses and their personalities," she said.
Wilson decided to make the switch to reining in June of 2006 and quickly took to the new discipline. She said she was somewhat surprised by her early success, but attributed a lot of it to the athlete under the saddle.
"I walked into a really great horse," Wilson said. "Each time I show him, he gives me everything - it's really, really fun."
When she is home from school, Wilson trains at a facility in Temecula, because there are very few Western facilities in San Diego County. Recently, she competed in an NRHA event in Medford, Ore., and she was just invited to compete in the AQHA world championship show, which will be held in Oklahoma City in November.
"I'm really excited to be able to go," Wilson said. "I've been to the youth worlds the last six years, but the amateur worlds are a much bigger deal. Even though it's amateurs, a lot of them have been riding so long that they are essentially professional riders. So I'm really happy to be going to that competition."
Wilson thinks that having been to the Oklahoma City event and having had success there in the past will make her more comfortable this fall.
"Knowing how good my horse has been for me in that arena will be helpful, because I'm sure I'll be really, really nervous," Wilson said. "The level of competition will be so much greater. It will be much more challenging. I know my horse can do well enough - it's just whether I can."
Wilson realizes that competing in reining makes her unique among her peers who are involved in more traditional sports like soccer and basketball. She loves the competition, though, and wouldn't trade it for anything.
"I like that it's not very subjective," she said. "There's a clear scoring system, so you know what your score is and what you did right and wrong. It's nice to be able to build on that and know where you need to improve."