Horse sense: Columbia teen on the rise in riding circles

Passersby on Owen Brown Road are likely to notice something not often seen in a Columbia residential neighborhood — two horses standing in the front yard of a small Hickory Ridge home.

But inside the home is something even more unusual to the area — a 17-year-old, up-and-coming horseback riding star.

Though just a teenager, Jacob Pope is the primary caretaker of 15-year-old thoroughbred Timmy and two-year-old miniature horse Monty. He is also a skilled horseback rider who won top honors last November at a rigorous, four-day national program for young, emerging riders.

"Jacob is totally dedicated to his riding," said state Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, one of the Popes' neighbors. "You see him out there practicing and setting up jumps. His life is caring for the horses and competing."

Kasemeyer was not exaggerating. Horses and riding play a role in almost every aspect of Jacob's life, from the decorations in his room, where he dreams about having a professional riding career, to his daily chores and after-school and weekend activities of choice.

Every day, Jacob gets up ay 6:15 a.m. to check on Timmy and Monty, feed them and make sure they have enough hay and water for the day. Then he goes to McDonogh School, a private academy in Owings Mills with a well-known equestrian program, and spends the afternoon after classes caring for the school's 70 horses and working on his riding skills.

And nearly every weekend, Jacob can be found at a riding competition.

"It's a weird thing if we have a weekend off," he said.

But Jacob, who started riding when he was five or six, doesn't mind; he likes the social aspect of competitions.

"You meet up with all your friends, you have fun all day, and then you get serious and compete," he said.

A family affair

Riding is not just a part of Jacob's life, it's a family affair.

For the past 10 years, Jacob, his parents Andy and Barbara, and his brother Edward, have spent their annual family vacation horseback riding at a ranch in Arizona.

"It's a nice thing that we all ride, we all enjoy horses," Andy said. "There is something attractive about horses that is hard to describe."

While Barbara only rides for recreation, Andy and 10-year-old Edward, like Jacob, actually compete.

"Edward started riding when he was two-and-a-half," Barbara recalled. "He was jumping by five."

Also a student at McDonogh, Edward competes in local riding competitions, but unlike Jacob, he's also taken in interest in other sports, such as lacrosse.

Asked if he hopes one day to compete in riding at the level Jacob now does, Edward said: "Not really."

Jacob said despite Edward's other interests, his younger brother is a top-notch rider.

"When I was 10, I was not nearly as good as him," Jacob said.

Andy, who works at the National Academy of Sciences but has a graduate degree in horse breeding from the University of Maryland, said he competed in riding competitions when he was younger and he still does "once in awhile."

He said he has always loved horses, so when he bought the property off Owen Brown Road 25 years ago he also bought a horse, named Loretta.

"I thought I would teach riding lessons after work for income," he said.

Andy's riding lessons only lasted for about a month, but Loretta stayed on the property with the family for 20 years before she died.

Jacob grew up with Loretta, but he and his family have also take in other horses throughout the years. The most horses the Popes had at one time is three.

'Like best friends'

While she's grown accustomed to having horses next door after 25 years, neighbor Sherrie Black appreciates how unusual it is.

"I love the fact that we can be a mile from the Columbia mall and still have horses," she said.

Black said she uses the paddock fence that encloses the pasture as a landmark when giving people directions. She tells them to look for two horses.

The Popes said people come by all the time to look at Timmy and Monty.

"Probably more than we know," Barbara said.

Timmy was given to the Popes about two years ago by the McDonogh School because he wouldn't jump anymore after a couple bad falls. Jacob started working with Timmy to overcome the horse's fear of jumps, and now he is "back to pretty much normal," Jacob said.

Jacob sometimes rides Timmy at local competitions. One of his favorite aspects of riding, he said, is "the relationship you make between the horse and rider.

"Timmy and I — I don't want to sound like a weirdo — but we're like best friends," Jacob said. "I know how he's feeling. I know if he's going to be scared of something."

Miranda Grabill, coach of McDonogh's varsity riding team, of which Jacob is a member, praised Jacob's ability to connect with horses.

"One of his strengths is getting on many different horses and figuring them out, what makes each one go well," she said.

That strength has become particularly useful in the past year, as Jacob has started competing more at the national level, where he rides unfamiliar horses. Jacob rents or borrows for national competitions because "warmbloods," horses bred for competitive horseback riding, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Grabill said Jacob one of the top competitors in his age group in the area, and one of the top 50 nationally.

Just in the past year, Jacob has qualified for the United States Equestrian Federation medal finals in Harrisburg, Pa., and the national Maclay finals in Lexington, Ky., Both are national, elite competitions for junior riders.

Emerging athlete

Jacob was also one of 250 young riders across the country to be accepted last year into the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Emerging Athletes Program.

EAP founder and U.S. Olympic gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor said the program was developed "to identify and nurture potential riders that wanted to be good horsemen as well as riders."

After showing his skills in local and regional EAP training sessions, Jacob was chosen as one of 12 finalists to compete in the national session, held Nov. 17 through Nov. 20 in Mundelein, Ill., a competition he wound up winning.

Throughout the four-day training session, Jacob and the 11 other EAP finalists were judged on their riding skills, horsemanship, stable management and general knowledge of horses.

"The EAP is not all about riding; it's about the care for your horses," Jacob said.

He said having horses to take care of at home really helped him excel in the competition.

Taylor said Jacob "showed a lot of quality and consistency" in all areas of the competition.

"I think he has tremendous potential to be a player in the future of this sport," she said.

Jennifer Alfano, the EAP clinician who judged stable management, said Jacob is "well-rounded, not just great with riding.

"He's got a true love of the horses," she said.

Winning the EAP competition allowed Jacob to attend the prestigious George Morris Horse Mastership Training Session in Florida from Jan. 2 to 7. He was also given a $3,000 grant to use toward future training and a $1,500 gift certificate for riding clothes and equipment.

Jacob, a junior in high school, is already looking at colleges — ones with good riding programs. Unfortunately, he'll likely have to ride on a club team because NCAA riding, limited by Title IX restrictions, is currently only offered as a women's sport.

Though Jacob said he plans to get a "normal degree" in college, he still dreams of a future in riding.

"I'd love to go to the Olympics," he said. "But really my goal would be to have a business where I have high-level horses, high-level riders … getting paid to ride all these horses."

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