Emma Brunell clears an obstacle during a competition at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (photo courtesy Emma Brunell)

Persistent Brunell jumped at chance to ride and compete – and hasn’t stopped since

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

The persistence of a much younger Emma Brunell has kept the older version of herself quite busy.

As a small child, Brunell wanted a horse. Really, really wanted a horse. Reminded everyone around her of this as often as possible.

While on a family vacaton, all that effort finally paid off.

“I was up in Canada seeing my grandma, and my mom decided that it was time to sign me up for a horse camp because I just kept asking for horses,” Brunell said. “So I went and I really liked it, so then they signed me up for another week and then I loved it.

“I came back down to Florida where I used to live and I just kept going on and on about it. My parents were like, okay, we’ve got to get her a lesson once a week or something.”

Brunell hasn’t stopped riding since, in time combining that passion with her love of competition. The Polk County High School junior is a regular face in show jumper events at Tryon International Equestrian Center, looking to lead her horse, Carlos Santana, over obstacles and through courses in the fastest time possible.

“Instead of going around and getting judged on how we jump a fence or how we look while we ride, I just get based on time, so that means I have to go complete a series of obstacles (in) a certain amount of seconds,” Brunell said. “I have to try and do it in the fastest time without knocking a rail down or having the horse stop at a jump or falling off, and I have to get in within a certain amount of time or else I get counted off for that.”

It’s a sport Brunell first pursued in Florida, where she quickly moved from small local shows to large events in Ocala, Wellington and Venice. Relocating to Polk County has made it easier for Brunell to continue to train and compete without missing extended school time, given her proximity to TIEC.

Enrolling at Polk County High School has also given Brunell another outlet for her competitive spirit – she runs with the Wolverine cross country and track teams.

(photo courtesy Emma Brunell)

“I’m a very competitive person,” she said. “With horses, I like the speed of things. I like getting to compete against people from all over the country and sometimes even other countries and then getting to watch other top-name riders compete and see their mistakes. I get to learn from those mistakes and then see my own mistakes and learn.”

Brunell maintains a regular training schedule to help reduce in-ring mistakes – a busy regular schedule.

“For a typical week, I usually go to school, and then I go to track,” she said. “Then I’ll go out to the barn afterwards and I’ll ride for 45 minutes, if it’s just an exercise. But if I have to have a lesson, I’m usually out there for an hour, an hour and 20 minutes at the ring.

“Then we’ve got to come back and clean up all our stuff and take care of the horses, so I usually don’t get home until 6, 6:30.”

Helping ease the stress of the long days is the relationship that Brunell has built with her horse, Carlos Santana. A deep bond between rider and horse is certainly not uncommon, and Brunell says she has developed exactly that in the year-plus since she’s began working with Carlos.

“I’ve built a connection so deep with him that I’ve never really experienced with anything else,” she said. “He’s my best friend. I know he’ll take care of me and we take care of each other and we have a great trust. It’s a companionship.

“I also like spending time out there because I’m not having to work on my homework and also I’m not looking at my phone all the time. There are people that stare at their phones all the time at the barn. I’m not one of those. I just like to work.”

Brunell may begin competing at venues beyond TIEC next season – “kind of like a senior trip” – but is taking a practical approach to thoughts of training and competing as she moves into adulthood.

“When I was younger, before I understood how much it takes to become a top rider and how much money you have to have, I did want to do it professionally,” she said. “For me, I feel like it’d be safer to go into a different kind of occupation where I could support myself, and then eventually get back into it.

“I don’t want to graduate high school and be worrying about where I’m gonna sleep after a horse show or worrying about whether I can pay the next hospital bill if I fall off.”

Emma Brunell and her horse, Carlos Santana (photo courtesy Emma Brunell)