SIKESTON -- Any time 15-year-old Claire Dolan has a hard day when nothing seems to be going her way, she knows exactly who to turn to for comfort -- her friend, Isabella, a Paso Fino horse she acquired only a few months ago.
"The horse always understands what you're feeling," Dolan confided.
Fellow horse rider Victoria Moy, 15, agreed.
"It's kind of like any animal," Moy said. "You don't know how they're feeling, but if you hang out with them a lot, you get an idea."
Moy grew up riding her horse, Condesa.
"We've definitely formed a bond, and it's easy to tell when she's having an off day," said Moy, who is the daughter of Ken and Martha Moy of Sikeston.
Over the past few years, Dolan and Moy have taken lessons at El Tomaria Farms Inc., a Paso Fino horse farm, in Benton.
"They're such an incredible, incredible creature," Dolan said about Paso Finos. "They're really powerful, and they all have their own personalities. They're just great."
The young equine enthusiasts train under Beth Uelsmann, who manages El Tomaria Farm. The Paso Fino horse farm was started by Uelsmann's grandfather, Tom Uelsmann in 1968.
"These horses originated in South America and are noted to be the smoothest riding horses in the world and are very elegant and very powerful," Uelsmann explained about Paso Finos.
Last month Dolan and Moy earned top honors at the Paso Fino Grand Nationals in Perry, Ga. Dolan, who is the daughter of David and Julie Dolan of Sikeston, received first and second place awards while Moy received a first and fourth place finish.
But Dolan and Moy aren't alone in their accomplishments.
Another Sikeston resident, Olivia Chittenden, 13, daughter of Anne Chittenden and John Chittenden, earned two second place wins at the national level, where thousands of riders competed.
The finishes earned the girls a chance to compete at the Paso Fino Youth World Cup in Orlando, Fla., next July. This event is considered the Olympics of Paso Finos. "You have to put yo
ur name in a pot, and they choose who they think will be best in representing the countries and I'd be lucky if I got it," said Chittenden, who also rides at El Tomaria.
Only 10 people from each age group are chosen out of the entire United States, Chittenden noted about the World Cup.
"There's a written test, and it's really cool. This will be the first time ever it will be in the United States," Chittenden said.
Chittenden learned to ride horses through Girl Scouts and when she was in the fourth grade. She has two Paso Finos, Viajero, which means traveler in Spanish, and Latagolita.
Chittenden said it's hard to explain why she likes riding so much.
"I just I love to do it," Chittenden said. "I don't think I will be able to get tired of it."
When they compete, the girls don't jump the horses, they just show them for gaits, Moy explained.
"It's a lot of fun, and it does take some time out of your daily routine, but I definitely think it's worth it," Moy said. "I love my horse dearly and the people at El Tomaria farms supportive and a blast to hang out with."
Competitions typically take place in an arena, and classes vary depending on the horse's age, gender and gaits.
Some of the classes are judged on horse performance, equitation of the rider or both, Uelsmann said. Equitation is when riders are judged on how they sit and how they react to every situation with a horse, she explained.
Although Uelsmann teaches lessons at the farm, she said the farm is also has a full-service equine facility, where they breed, sell, train, give lessons and host shows.
"They are very dedicated. I'm very lucky to have such good families to work with. They are hard-working," Uelsmann said about the girls.
When it comes to training people to ride horses, safety is No. 1, Uelsmann said. Often times Uelsmann will hear people say they've had the worst experiences with horses.
"But nine times out of 10, someone has bad experience because of human error," Uelsmann said. "Either the saddle wasn't put on right or it scares someone. Little things can make experience so much different or better, and I really try to help the kids learn what's safe."
In addition to riding horses, Uelsmann also teaches about brushing and grooming of horses and why it's important.
"It teaches them so much," Uelsmann said about horsemanship. "It teaches patience and that you have to really work at something in order to succeed and progress."
And of course riding a horse they're compatible with will only better the experience for someone. Uelsmann compared the selection process to that of finding a soul mate.
She said: "It's got to be just the right one."
The public is invited to attend a "Paso Party" exhibition from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at El Tomaria Farms, 5753 State Highway 77, in Benton. Directions from I-55: take exit 80 and turn right onto Missouri Highway 77. Look for two big pastures out front and a big white barn.