By Keith Gushard
Nikki Opatrny apparently wasn’t just born to ride a horse in competition, but win as well.
The bright-eyed 15-year-old from the Cochranton area wears a wide smile when asked about winning three different first-place honors all in the pony division of the 2012 Pennsylvania 4-H Horse Show in Harrisburg.
Opatrny and her horse, Jazzy Jane, were tops in the pole bending, clover leaf barrel racing and raised box keyhole competitions. They’re all timed competitions with additional time penalties for faults like knocking a pole or pylon over during a run. The winning pair got to the state level by qualifying in county, regional and district 4-H competitions.
The recent three-win performance of Opatrny and Jazzy Jane topped their effort in the 2011 Pennsylvania 4-H Horse Shows pony division by one win. In 2011, Opatrny and Jazzy Jane had two first-place wins — in clover leaf barrel racing and raised box keyhole competitions.
Opatrny is quick to point out that winning at the state level takes practice — and lots of it — so she and her steed can act as one in competition.
“I practice at least an hour every day,” said Opatrny, who has been riding horses since age 3. “We have an arena in the woods.”
But, Opatrny knows it also takes the help of others to get better at her sport.
A member of the 15-member Saddlesores 4-H Club in Mercer County, Opatrny said she and the other members get encouragement and tips from both each other and the club’s leaders.
“Our whole club is like one big family,” she said. “The leaders help the kids and the kids help each other saying ‘try this or try that’ the next ride.”
Opatrny loves to participate in weekly club rides at the Mercer 4-H grounds from May through July.
“I like going because it’s always a group of friends,” she said. “We hang out and see what we can do.”
Opatrny also takes part in junior rodeo competitions during the summers as well. She was a winner in the all-around competition of the Penn Ohio Youth Rodeo last summer, taking home a new saddle and six belt buckles.
This coming summer, she plans to compete in the Western Pennsylvania Youth Rodeo circuit.
“I love the sport and love everything about it. You’re always with friends,” Opatrny said with grin.
She’s also with family, too, much of the time.
Her parents, Bill and Barb Opatrny, and her two younger brothers, Justin, 14, and Jake, 8, all are riders as well. Justin also took part in the 2012 Pennsylvania 4-H Horse Show.
Horseback riding apparently is something the three Opatrny kids were destined to do.
“Barb and I both were in 4-H as kids — she was in one in Erie and I was from Ohio,” Bill said. “We met at a horse show.”
Horseback riding is a great family activity, according to Bill Opatrny.
“It’s something we get to do all together. The kids all enjoy it and want to do it,” he said. “And I think it’s great because the kids learn responsibility in caring for the animals.”
Nikki Opatrny sees herself continuing in competitive horseback riding through 4-H and beyond.
“I want to be on a college rodeo team,” she said without hesitation about her future with the sport. That means heading to college in the Plains states or somewhere in the Southwest.
While she’s not sure yet what her career will be, she does know one thing for sure.
“I always want to be around animals,” Opatrny said.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.
4-H Horse Program
The Pennsylvania 4-H horse Program promotes development of horsemanship skills, while encouraging responsibility, self-confidence, sportsmanship and responsible care of project animals for children ages 8 through 18.
To learn more about 4-H horse programs, contact the Crawford County Cooperative Extension office at 333-7460; visit the Penn State Cooperative Extension online at extension.psu.edu/counties or visit the Pennsylvania 4-H Horse Program website at animalscience.psu.edu, then go to Youth 4-H and horses.