After months — and in some cases years — of preparation, four FFA students from Lodi High School won the state championship for light horse judging on May 4 in San Luis Obispo.

“It’s almost unreal,” said sophomore Kailani Diaz. “There were a lot of teams, it’s a really cutthroat competition.”

“I still can’t believe we won,” said freshman Alyanna Ayala.

For junior Stephanie Van Ness, who knew next to nothing about horses when she first joined the Lodi High FFA two years ago, the victory was especially important.

“From that, to now we just won state, is huge for me because I have been working toward this for two years,” Van Ness said.

The Lodi High students were scored based on their performance in two events: Halter and performance. The closer the scores they gave were to the scores the judges gave, the more points they earned.

For the halter event, four classes of four horses each were judged primarily on appearance: Balance, structural correctness and overall muscling.

“There’s a standard for each breed, and whichever horse looks the most ideal compared to that standard is who tops that class,” Diaz said.

The performance event, in which the horses had riders, had four categories: Western Pleasure, reining, hunter-under-saddle and hunter hack.

Western Pleasure and reining both use western saddles, while hunter-under-saddle and hunter hack use English saddles.

“An English saddle doesn’t have a big horn, it’s a lot smaller and used for jumping,” Diaz said. “A western saddle is bigger and has a horn, you’re supposed to stay in it.”

In both Western Pleasure and reining, the horses are scored on quality of movement and responsiveness to the rider, Diaz said.

According to Van Ness, hunter-under-saddle is quite similar to Western Pleasure.

“Just with an English riding saddle, and it can be a little faster-paced,” Van Ness said.

In hunter hack, freshman Olivia Moreno said the horses are scored on the style of their jumps, quality of movement and manners.

“(Manners are) the attitude to the rider, response to queues and focus,” Moreno said.

In addition to their judging abilities, the students were also scored on their “reasons.”

“We have to tell the judges why we placed the class the way we did,” Diaz said.

“You’re scored based on different components,” Van Ness said.

Those components are confidence, timing and how well they were able to memorize their reasons. The team began practicing in January, reviewing packets given to them by their teacher, Jessica Barrett, and even spending their own time studying classes on YouTube.

Barrett, for her part, was proud to watch her students’ hard work and dedication pay off.

“I did push you guys hard,” Barrett said.

“It was stressful, but the hard work paid off,” Ayala said.

Having won the state championship, the Lodi High Team will go on to nationals in Indianapolis the last week of October, the thought of which excites Moreno almost as much as their statewide victory.

“Even if we don’t win, just being able to represent California,” Moreno said.

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