KENNEWICK -- Nervous energy abounded at the far end of the Benton County Fairgrounds on Tuesday morning.
Youngsters and their horses were lined up in a large show ring. Horses whinnied and shifted from side to side. Kids held fast to lead ropes, trying hard to keep their steeds positioned just so for the judges.
It was day one of the 4-H and FFA horse performance competition and everyone was slightly on edge.
Everyone except a petite young woman and her giant sorrel gelding. The woman loosely held the slack lead rope. The horse towered over her -- motionless and unfazed by the palpable tension in the ring.
The two oozed confidence.
Both have changed a lot during the past six years and now are the most decorated pair in local 4-H history.
Kelsey Cook, an 18-year-old from Burbank, has collected four gold medals with Mighty Joe Titan, her 10-year-old gelding. No other Tri-City girl hasgarnered as many of the awards since anyone around here can remember.
Gold medals in 4-H aren't awarded for simply winning an event. They're more like belts in karate -- they show a level of personal accomplishment on their own, not as compared to other competitors.
Kelsey has won that award in four categories -- showmanship, bareback, hunt seat and stock seat.
Showmanship -- the event held at the fairgrounds Tuesday morning -- features kids leading horses with halters and ropes. Kids ride their horses in the other three categories, which differ in tack as well as style of riding.
Getting a medal is a lengthy process that starts with collecting qualifying points. Then riders can ask to be judged for medals, starting with bronze. Each level requires harder routines that show the rider's control of the horse.
To get the gold medal, the young rider must choreograph a routine -- pick the music and the patterns to ride in the arena.
Kelsey is the first girl around here to successfully do so in four categories in at least 25 years, said Leota Hallyburton, the superintendent of the local 4-H horse department.
One girl got three gold medals about seven years ago, Hallyburton said. But mostly, kids are thrilled to just get one.
Kelsey and Titan just collected their fourth last week in showmanship -- leading the horse.
Except Kelsey wasn't actually leading Titan the whole time, at least not with a rope. About halfway through her routine, she unhooked Titan and directed him through turns and stops using only body language and hand signals.
The 1,300-pound animal followed the woman's every move.
That was a big change from when she got him six years ago. "He was a bully," Kelsey said. "I was kind of scared of him at first."
Kelsey has to stand up real straight to be 5 feet tall. Titan is just over 16 hands, which means he is 51/2 feet at this withers. When he stands alert, his head is somewhere north of 6 feet.
Titan's hindquarters and shoulders are thick with muscle; his chest is deep. And he's the dominant type, Kelsey said.
He wanted no part of performing in a ring when she got him. He bucked high enough with the then-13-year-old on his back to amaze seasoned horse people.
And he bit. Not viciously -- he just nipped enough to let it be known he wouldn't be bossed around, Kelsey said.
"There were times when I wanted to sell him," she said with a laugh. "He was a pain in the butt."
Instead, her father, Brent, who is a professional dog trainer, fashioned a muzzle for Titan.
And Kelsey learned the principles of natural horsemanship. That training philosophy is all about being connected with your horse and building mutual respect, Kelsey said.
There is no punishment, at least not in the sense of striking or yelling at the horse. It's all about horse psychology.
"Whenever he tried to bite, I'd make him work," Kelsey said. "If he left me alone, he could rest."
Titan quickly learned that biting was not in his best interest. And over time, he learned to trust the small woman by his side to be his leader.
The hands-off routine last week showed how much the two had learned about each other. And how much Kelsey had gained from the experience.
"I trusted Titan to follow my lead," Kelsey said. "I have a lot more confidence in myself and gave more confidence to my horse."
Kelsey and Titan took first in one event Tuesday and third in another. The two will be competing at the fairgrounds all week.
-- Jacques Von Lunen: 582-1402; email@example.com