Behind a quiet, bright smile, Theresa Tolar, a 10-year-old at Davidson Day School, can't put into words how much she loves horses.
But on the back of her pony, Twix, she exudes a mature self-confidence that has led her to more than 200 ribbons in the ring.
"If you bring her to the barn, where she's in her own element, she'll talk your ear off," said Linda Tolar, her mother.
At the age of 7, Theresa took her first riding lesson. It was April 2007, and by November, she competed in her first show.
The Tolar family, of Mooresville, then bought Theresa's first pony, Twix, also known by her show name, My Frosted Kiss, from Zoie Randall.
Randall, a graduating senior at Lake Norman High School, is Theresa's riding mentor.
"Twix was what they call a green pony, and I took her and broke her for a saddle. She is a quiet pony and it wasn't dangerous to put Theresa on her, but they didn't know anything," said Randall. "Theresa was new to it, Twix was new to it, so they had their own little fights, but I think that just brought them closer together."
As the pair learned together, they captured attention from competitors in the ring, as well as Olympic and international Grand Prix show jumping recruiters.
In 2009, Theresa joined the Progressive Show Jumping Association and the South Carolina Hunter Jumper Association. The two organizations aim to support equestrians, said Theresa's mother.
In the fall of 2009, Theresa received championship awards from both organizations, given to the horse and rider with the highest cumulative points at the end of the season.
She then advanced to the Short Stirrup Division, and moved into the Pony Division.
"Theresa is very skillful and has a natural style capable of training young ponies and bringing out the best in finished ponies," said Becky Reville, her trainer, in an e-mail. "Theresa and her talent will take her as far as she would like to go in the equestrian world and we are excited to see how far she can go."
During the week, Theresa spends three days taking lessons from trainers Molly Gough and Reville, who own and operate North Creek Farms in Mooresville. Twix is boarded at Noble Acres, in Mooresville, owned by Randall's parents.
The Tolar family often transports Twix between locations, with the help of borrowing Randall's family horse trailer, said Linda Tolar.
Grandparents and friends have been generous financially to help Theresa grow in the sport, she said.
For Theresa, having people believe in her is very important, said her mother. "There's a lot of times where she is the youngest one going into the ring with older girls, and then she'll knock the socks off of them, but in the beginning they're like, 'OK, she's coming, so what,'" said Linda.
Often times, competitors in the ring are looking down on Theresa and Twix because of their short stature. At the end of the competition when riders line up in front of the judges, people in the stands often laugh because it is funny to see the small pair, said Scott Tolar, her father.
"(Riders) are looking down at Twix and then (the judges) call out first and second place and (Theresa) leaves and takes her ribbon," said Scott.
The duo is small with Theresa 4-foot 4-inches and Twix 11.3 hands, or Theresa is 52 inches and Twix is 45.2 inches. Still, the two have gained respect as strong competitors in the ring. The average horse in the Kentucky Derby is 16 hands, with a hand measuring four inches, according to www.kentuckyderby.info.
As Theresa thinks about her first blue ribbon and when her parents bought Twix, it puts a smile on her face.
Theresa said she is currently working on Twix's strides and lead changes.
She has immersed herself in riding, and even her bedroom is designed to look like a barn, with the bed as the barn and a hayloft above it, said her mother.
Both parents said horseback riding has allowed their daughter to flourish socially and in school.
"She has blossomed and really come out. She is now in school plays, she's singing up on stage, hamming it up, she's doing really well," said Linda.
Theresa is able to relate to horses. While they can't verbally communicate with her, Theresa understands their needs and it has provided her with a sense of responsibility, said Scott.
With a reserved nature, Theresa did not have much to say, but her homemade T-shirt said it all: "Kentucky."
Her goal is to qualify in December for the 2011 Pony Finals in Lexington, Kentucky.
Linda joked that in the meantime she is going to make a bed spread out of the ribbons Theresa has collected because she doesn't know what to do with them all.
As Theresa continues in horseback riding, her parents hope to seek sponsors because the sport at higher levels increases in cost.
"We are very proud and we are very happy," said Linda. "We want to continue in this, I'd like to see her go as far as she can go."