A novice rider of only about a year, 7-year-old Emiliano Padilla of Holtville takes the family horse, Thunder, through its paces during the first Barbara Worth Brigadettes ranch-riding event on Saturday, April 16. Emiliano won multiple awards in his division. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
EL CENTRO — With a look of deep concentration, Emiliano Padilla steered his dusty tan horse around the arena. Slowing down, speeding up, and maneuvering at the direction of the judge, the 7-year-old out of Holtville put on display the skills he’d worked on for the last year.
Emiliano was among the top winners at the first Barbara Worth Brigadettes Ranch Riding event on Saturday, April 16. After his first win in his age division for ranch trail riding (inside the arena), his gap-toothed smile matched his excitement.
“This is my first event,” Emiliano said. “It just felt great to win.”
His father, Damian Padilla, was proud of his son’s progress. It was in the last year that Damian bought their first horse, Thunder, in hopes of teaching his kids how to ride.
Although he didn’t grow up around horses at his own house, it was at his grandparents’ house that he liked the ranch lifestyle.
“We just started them out this last year,” Damian said of his two sons, the younger of which was just 3 years old. “We’re just learning along the way.”
Led on a lead by his father, Damian’s youngest son, Julian, also is just starting to ride, even before he’s started attending school.
While Emiliano cleaned up, winning “halters,” or the top award in multiple events, in the 8 and under division and took away a “fly sheet,” or a large horse blanket of sorts that only the most decorated winners received, Julian didn’t go away empty-handed.
Dad Damian had the opportunity to pin a bright red ribbon on his littlest son’s shirt.
It’s the next generation of horse riders that the Brigadettes are aiming to attract in the Valley. Although some would associate horse riding to those who participate in rodeos or the Imperial Valley’s beloved Cattle Call events each year, the Brigadettes aim to also contribute to the community. Saturday’s event benefited the Humane Society of Imperial County.
“All of us here love our horses and we want to share that love with the community,” said Dana Malone of Imperial, who is the current Brigadette president. “We really also do care a lot about each other; we’re sisters.”
The Brigadettes are a local horse-riding group that is celebrating its 80th-year anniversary since its founding, known mostly for its regular trail rides each month and its annual Gymkhana event.
The ranch riding event, which differs from the Gymkhana, focused more on showmanship, the art of being able to control the horse and ride along certain obstacles at various speeds in a technically correct way. It’s not the speed riding event that most would associate with competitive horse riding.
The Brigadette group, which has 24 members but also fluctuates in numbers, saw people come as far as Blythe, like Addison Mefford, a freshman in high school, who said when she needs to decompress from everything, riding does that.
What she’s found in the years since she started riding horses at age 3 is that she feels most relaxed and content when she’s out riding by herself or with a few friends.
“It’s a thing that I can come to after a hard day at school. I can just clear my mind,” the 14-year-old Addison said. “It’s just my happy place.”
For Brigadette Janet Stills, the heart of the organization is keeping traditions of horsemanship alive, in the times that the lost art needs some boosts from younger participants.
Stills, a former Cattle Call queen who still competes in team penning and ranch sorting, said her daughter used to ride and she doesn’t see herself stopping anytime soon.
“I’ve known these ladies most of my life,” Stills said. “We’re trying to help this continue by getting youth involved and get our next generation to bring up those who love horses.”
The judge for the event was Murrie Plourd, whose day job is as principal of the Imperial Valley Homeschool Academy. Plourd has more than two decades of experience in horse training and has been the frequently sought person to help Cattle Call queens prepare for competitions.
“She’s a great horse trainer in the Valley,” Malone said. “She’s taken many horses to many championships.”
Jamie Mefford, Addison’s mom, said her family is originally from Holtville and she considers herself a “barn mom” to her daughter and her daughter’s riding friends. Malone said she was excited to see younger participants that are so important to keeping the “lost art” of horsemanship alive.
“This really is a family thing. You see multiple generations of family members traveling together,” Malone said. “It fosters family togetherness.”
Making the trip from Blythe was 16-year-old Sophia Craig, one of Addison’s friends, who has been competing for just a year and a half. Her quarter horse, Foster, stood out in the group for his size and strength.
“I specialize in western pleasure riding, which is basically riding slow and looking pretty,” Sophia laughed, “which is hard because he’s huge.”
Although she was riding from the age of 7, Foster was a gift for her 15th birthday.
“It’s great being out of town and changing environments. I’d like to be a horse trainer that fixes behavioral problems… and teach(es) people how to handle them,” Sophia said.
It was clear that in the group of participants there were some riders who appreciate being part of the community and others who have even greater professional aspirations.
Addison has already won in competitions, with her latest buckle in 2020 at the High Point Horse Show in the novice division. Although she wants to continue to grow and compete professionally in racing and jumping, it’s the relationships that she’s developed over the years that makes it something she can’t imagine leaving behind.
Addison also won multiple halters and a fly sheet on Saturday.
“Honestly just being out riding, being with my friends laughing and having fun, it’s relaxing. It’s not really about the competition anymore, it’s just having fun,” she said.
And for newcomers like Emiliano, his ride is just beginning. He’d like to start learning how to rope, so he may be the future of continuing horsemanship in Imperial Valley.
“I can learn a lot about horses,” he said. “I’m really happy.”