At a time in her life when many of her peers are wondering what career path they eventually will follow, Tricia Tillman has already decided where she is going and how to get there.
In fact, the 17-year-old White Hall resident is well on her way toward the goal of becoming a standout professional horse trainer in the 15,000-member National Reining Horse Association. She put together a banner 2016 season in which she claimed four world titles and was lauded at the organization's championship banquet in Fort Worth, Texas, on Feb. 11.
Tillman earned the rookie professional championship aboard GT Shiney Geym. She also captured a limited open title and reserve world championship in the intermediate open while finishing third when she entered the rookie professional competition on another horse, Starry Future.
All told, she competed in 24 shows while winning two Lawson trophies. According to Hayley Eberle, the NRHA manager of marketing and outreach, the Lawson trophy is the sport's most prized possession, with only 14 given out each year to competitors in a variety of classes.
At such a young age, Tillman's career is clearly on a special track that has taken her as far west as Oklahoma and into Southern states such as North Carolina and Tennessee. In the rookie professional class, Tillman vied against men and women, some of whom that were more than twice her age, Lawson said.
The 2017 season begins this month and runs through November, and Tillman plans another full load of events to enter as her career.
Reining in the prizes
Reining is an equine sport based on "how willfully guided" a horse is by a rider, said Kimberly Tillman, Tricia's mother.
Basically, rider and horse are judged on how well they perform on any and all of 13 approved patterns that include running small slow circles and large fast circles, flying lead changes (a quick movement with either the left or right foreleg in front), rollbacks over the hocks (stopping and turning), 360-degree spins done in place and sliding stops that are the equine version of a car driver slamming on the brakes before going into a short skid — and then backing up as if in reverse.
Reining might make an apt comparison to figure skating, only without ice and while mounted on a 1,000-pound quarter horse standing 14.2 hands (4.75 feet from hooves to withers).
There are no fences to jump or other props, such as a lasso, employed. It's just the rider and horse going through the paces for a chance to earn prize money for the top performers.
"It's a money sport," said Robert LaPorta, who for 30 years has owned the 27-acre Summerwind Farm in Damascus in northern Montgomery County, where Tillman works and trains. "You put money up for an entry fee, anywhere from $40 to upwards of $2,000, and the amount of money you win is determined by where you place, the number of entrants and the added money in the class."
All of the events or maneuvers take years to master, and new tricks and techniques are constantly being improved upon by riders who pay attention to the finer points of their craft.
Just as a top-notch athlete in another sport such as football studies game film, Tricia has learned to watch other riders compete and is not afraid to ask them about their techniques.
Of course, Tillman already knows her fair share about the sport, considering she already has logged 13 years of reining and riding.
The home-schooled teen, whose last formal schooling was at Hereford Middle School as a seventh-grader, has been competing for a decade and commutes five times a week from White Hall to Damascus for training.
And LaPorta said that she is a serious student of the sport who puts in extra effort to refine her rides on customers' horses, earning close to $20,000 in purse money alone last year. She is also paid by LaPorta for her work on the farm.
"She's been here since she was little," he said. "She can hold her ground, that's for sure. She puts the time in and has a real appetite for the sport. You can't force or push them, and with Tricia you don't have to."
Tillman is backed by a half-dozen sponsors, including a cowboy-hat maker from New Mexico, "who has made her a hat and is using her as their model," Kimberly Tillman said.
"She rides horses, trains horses and shows horses for her Summerwinds Farm and its customers," LaPorta added. "She eats, sleeps and drinks reining horses."
The younger Tillman also boasts a tack sponsor from Colorado, a chaps-maker sponsor from North Carolina, a horse dentist sponsor from Westminster, a custom spur maker from Tennessee, a boot maker from Oklahoma and the Tribute Feed Co., according to her mother.
Besides the material recompense she earns, Tricia Tillman said there are other reasons the sport is so gratifying for her.
"What we do is very physically and mentally demanding for the horse," she said. "When the horse figures out what you want it to do — when that light bulb goes off in its head — it's very rewarding."
The first important decision regarding her career came a couple of years ago when Tillman was offered a $100,000 contract to spend a year in Europe as a model, her mother said.
"When my husband and I told her about the contract, she became very quiet," Kimberly Tillman recalled. "Then she told us that she'd rather stay with her horses than go off to France or somewhere."
Despite all her accomplishments, like any athlete Tricia Tillman has had some trying instances.
"There are always moments of self-doubt," she said. "I've fallen several times; everyone has at one time or another. I'm a perfectionist, so I pick at everything I do. There are moments when you block out everything and just ride. I don't think about the competition. That's when you just try to let the horse show you what he will allow you to show. And at the end of the day, the good things usually outweigh the bad."