A set of horse jumps lay idle and unused along the outer rim of Emma Scotthanson’s horse arena at her family’s Clinton home.
The jumps won’t be used anytime soon, and there’s a simple reason for this: Scotthanson isn’t one for adrenaline-fused action. She won’t go near a roller coaster or a scary movie, and she elects not to participate in heart-pumping sports at South Whidbey High School.
Rather, it’s the precision, exactness, and concentration involved in dressage riding — the art of riding and training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility, and balance — that drew her to the sport.
Scotthanson, a 16-year-old sophomore and the only competitive junior dressage rider in Island County, is ranked 14th in the nation after competing at the United States Dressage Federation Region 6 at Devonwood Equestrian Center in Sherwood, Ore., on Sept. 24-27.
Scotthanson was able to climb the leaderboard after qualifying for the regional championships with four scores over 63 percent.
With her Oldenburg horse, Saturday’s Song, Scotthanson placed fifth in dressage seat medals and eighth in third level training. Her scores at the championships also placed her first in the all-breed standings for Oldenburg horses. The rankings are point-based and derived from the average median score throughout the year.
Being that this is only her second year competing in dressage, the ranking came as a surprise to Scotthanson.
“I was in shock. I didn’t even know that was a thing,” she said. “I didn’t see this happening, but I hoped it would.”
Her mother, Kelly Scotthanson, was equally surprised but felt it was validation for all the hard work Scotthanson has put in to succeeding in the sport.
“Whether she ever dressage rides again after high school, there’s still life-long learning there,” her mom said. “Dedication, commitment, hard work, disappointment — those are great things to learn.”
Dressage is a horse riding competition which asks the horse and rider to work in unison and perform a number of predetermined routines. Judges base their scores on the horse’s gait, impulsion to move and the elasticity of its steps, harmony with the rider and acceptance of the bit, as well as the rider’s seat and position.
One would think such disciplines would require that a horse and rider have a long relationship. But, that wasn’t the case with Emma and Saturday’s Song. The pair had only been together for about a month before competing in the championships.
Scotthanson’s coach, Lisa Boyer, a trainer at Wild Wood Farm in Oak Harbor, thought it was stunning what Scotthanson was able to accomplish in such a short time with Saturday’s Song.
“Every horse is a little different, they respond different to signals by riders,” Boyer said. “It’s like working with a new dance partner.”
“To achieve what she did is pretty remarkable,” she added.
The Scotthanson family moved to Whidbey from Bainbridge Island when Emma was 6 in order to give her an opportunity to pursue what Kelly describes as an “unstoppable” passion for the sport.
Their family friend, JT Madsen, helped construct the 100-by-200-foot arena in the back yard of the Scotthanson’s home in Maxwelton.
After Scotthanson placed fourth in the nation when she was 7 years old at the Walk-Trot-Equitation competition in Brookside, Cali., it became apparent that this wouldn’t be the average pastime hobby.
“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re in trouble,’ ” Kelly Scotthanson said. “I’m thinking a couple horses in the backyard, she’ll ride them once a week.”
Nine years later, dozens of ribbons won by Emma line the walls of the Scotthanson household. Along with grooming and caring for Saturday’s Song, Emma also cleans the stalls and schedules appointments with the veterinarian.
“She’s really dedicated and very committed,” Scotthanson said. “She does everything. She isn’t one of those spoiled horse girls that gets handed this perfect horse. She’s had to make it her own way.”
Kelly Scotthanson competed in equestrian for the University of Oregon, where she endured her fair share of bumps and bruises.
Unless the elder Scotthanson decides she wants another crack at it, the jumps will remain on the side of the arena.
“I jumped over things,” Kelly Scotthanson said. “That’s what I wanted to do. You couldn’t pay her to do it.”
Emma Scotthanson is also a senior in the Knight-Riders 4H Club. When Scotthanson isn’t riding, her head is usually buried in homework. She listed Central Washington University as one of her possible destinations when she graduates from high school in 2018. Her interests are in science-related pursuits, such as biology; she hopes to become a professor.
“I love discovering new things and I love the structure of science,” Scotthanson said. “I love how you have to document everything.”
Scotthanson attributes her success in dressage to Boyer and Saturday’s Song. Because she’s only a short, 30- to 40-minute drive away, Scotthanson has taken away a lot from her coach, whom she’s known since she was 2.
Boyer is confident that the sky is the limit for Scotthanson.
“I hope that she continues to work up through the levels,” Boyer said. “She has the potential to achieve whatever she wants to. Every horse she’s going to have is going to teach her along the way. She’s pretty tuned into horses.”