Polk County High student Emma Gurley rides in the 2019 Blowing Rock Charity Horse Show (photo courtesy Emma Gurley)

Editor’s note: This is the first of three articles about Polk County High School students who are also competitive equestrians.

Young Emma Gurley’s Christmas wish list looked like that of many other young girls, a pony the dream that she usually whispered in Santa’s ear.

Santa finally delivered, and Gurley hasn’t stopped riding since.

The Polk County junior has turned that holiday hope into a competitive outlet. Gurley has ridden in shows throughout the South, competing not only in events at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, but also in Kentucky, South Carolina and, earlier this year, Ocala, Fla.

All started by that Christmas wish.

“I probably started riding around 10 years old,” Gurley said. “I’ve always loved horses. I’ve always wanted one, you know, every Christmas it was like a pony and all that.

“I started out in 4-H in McDowell and did the little local shows on my little quarter horse mare. I still have her. Then it just started growing into something more and more and now, I get to compete nationally and it’s really cool. I never thought I would get this far, honestly.”

Gurley rides hunters, the equestrian discipline where style is just as important as performance. Much like their showjumping counterparts, hunters move around a ring and do clear obstacles, but judges determine winners based on subjective criteria.

“I do hunter jumpers, which is more focused on your style of riding and how well the horse jumps and how well you get it to the base of the jump,” Gurley said. “Just overall the picture of it. It’s very competitive, actually, and whereas in jumpers, the time limit and defaults count and so there’s no way that you can deny the winner. (In hunters), you really have to perform and set yourself apart from the other riders.”

Emma Gurley prepares for a competition at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (photo courtesy Emma Gurley)

“I’ll probably end up doing jumpers because I want to do the Grand Prixs and all that. But, for now, I love just how technical it is and how smooth it is. I just love it.”

Gurley’s passion for horses took root while spending time with her grandfather as a small girl.

“I just always loved spending time down there, and I guess it’s just part of me,” she said. “I never knew that I didn’t like horses. There wasn’t a moment that I was like, I want to ride now, because I always have.

“I can’t imagine not riding now. It’s such a part of me now but I don’t know what I do without it.”

Having that passion helps push Gurley through the long days required of any competitive athlete. Once her day at Polk County High School ends, it’s on to the barn and time to train.

“Whenever it’s sunny, you know, weather and all that, it’s probably an hour of riding,” Gurley said. “It depends on the horse whenever it’s a good time to end. I do all the grooming beforehand and then all the feeding and all that after, so we probably get home around 6:30 or 7. I train down in Landrum, so it’s a long drive there.

“And then homework after that and hopefully food in between.”

Those long hours, though, have paid off in the ring. Gurley’s growing success has earned her a trip to the USEF Junior Hunter National Championship in Devon, Pa. in July, when she’ll compete against some of the best riders in the country. Opportunities such as the trip to Devon are among Gurley’s favorite things about her sport.

“I love that you get to go to a new place and you always meet new people. I always love that part,” she said. “Competing, I don’t know, I just like the adrenaline of it and it’s just it’s a different atmosphere.

“I love riding out in the field and all that, but competing, it’s just different because it’s a true test of what you’ve learned and you have to be good at it. I like to get better.”

Gurley hopes to continue to improve for quite some time.

“I want to do this for life,” she said.”I do want to be a professional rider and have a barn and run it. I do need a job to in order to do that, so I would like to do something in the business field like real estate, something that allows me to still ride and have time for that.”

Santa, no doubt, will hear more about that soon.

(Photo courtesy Emma Gurley)