Jordi Gray was just five years old when she first mounted a horse. Yet, because of dedicated teachers and endless practice sessions, the Owings Mills resident has quickly risen through the ranks to become a champion.
Last April, a month shy of her 13th birthday, Jordi won a prestigious national riding competition and continues her quest to be the best during the summer.
On a hot day in late June, Jordi left the cool interior of the stables at Garrison Forest School, talking and laughing with a group of girls in riding gear. Tall and thin with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, it's hard to imagine the considerable skill it takes to control a large pony weighing 950 pounds with just her hands, knees and plenty of nerve.
"I had three goals — sit up, hands still, legs still," Jordi said of the Interscholastic Equestrian Association finals, held in Syracuse, N.Y. Thanks to her first place win in her division for equitation, aka the art or practice of horse riding "on the flat," she is IEA's 2013 National Champion for Future Novice.
In the two-day event, she was pitted against 20 winners of a series of local and regional IEA events in a walk, trot and canter format.
"You have to have the proper form as a rider. You have to control the horse, so it has the proper form," said Jordi, explaining the criteria on which she was judged. "I thought, if I make a mistake, I'm not going to panic. I'm going to keep going and give it my best shot."
Jordi began riding as a preschooler at Garrison Forest.
"I found I was good at it," says Jordi, who won her first competitive event before she turned six.
Since then, she practices at least four days a week and competes every weekend during show season, April through October.
Jenny Mitchell, Garrison Forest's director of instructional and competitive riding, has taught Jordi since the teen arrived on campus.
"It takes talent, yes, and determination," she said. "But there are riding styles and learning styles. Instructors have to recognize each student's learning style."
And, Jordi, a rising eighth grader at Jemicy School, the Owings Mills educational institution for students with dyslexia, ADHD and related language-based learning differences, does process information differently than some of her peers.
While It is not uncommon for athletes to have dyslexia and or ADHD, as Jordi does, her mother, Ellen Levy-Gray, said she doesn't know if there is a connection between those conditions and horseback riding.
What she does know is that, before a competition, Jordi can look at three different courses for five minutes and ride onto them without one false step or going off-course. She can watch older, higher-level girls train in the ring and copy them, to the amazement of her teacher.
"If she sees it, she can do it," said Levy-Gray. "She has a photographic memory. She can't tell you what 7 times 4 is — math is her weakness — but she can tell you exactly what her medal course was a year and a half ago. It's pretty cool how her brain works."
Ben Shifrin, Jemicy's head of school, refers to kids in Jordi's category as "twice exceptional" students.
"It's not so much the relationship with the animal for Jordi," he said. "For her, it's in a visual-spatial field. I'm kind of like that. You can tell me where something is, but I have to see it on a map first. Once I see the map, I know exactly where I'm going and how to get there. That's why a lot of people like Jordi are very successful and become CEOs. They see things differently. They can work outside the box."
Those skills have been beneficial to Jordi at Garrison Forest, where two riding teams share the Equestrian Center. One is for riders who attend the school and one for non-students who take lessons, board their horses and compete under its auspices.
Both teams belong to the IEA, a nonprofit organization for middle and high school students with approximately 5,000-student riders on hundreds of teams nationwide. Locally, there is also the Baltimore County Horse Show Association, a nonprofit for riders of all ages in the central Maryland region. Both the IEA and the local group sponsor events in which winners earn points that qualify them for other competitions.
"You have to ride in rated shows" to advance to the next round, said Jordi, whose road to the IEA final was capped by winning an IEA regional. "You have to get accepted, and I was honored to go," she said.
Ordinarily, Jordi rides her large pony Noah, a chestnut with a white blaze on his face and white stockings. .
Jordi pets Noah, and he nuzzles her back. "It's a combination of your body and voice. You tell them they're good, that you respect them," she says of handling horses. "It's an attitude that starts when you walk in their stall."
A full summer of competition and practices lie ahead for Jordi, who will travel to Virginia and Florida for events. After that, her future in riding seems far in the distance.
The Olympics? "Possibly." A scholarship? "Hopefully," she says. "I want to continue with equitation and," she adds, "jumpers. That's probably my next goal."