ROCHEPORT — Justin Eddy is one confident kid.
Even in front of about 5,000 spectators, he didn’t get rattled.
"Were you nervous after that?" Justin’s father, Joe Eddy, a tall man with a broad chest, asked his skinny 9-year-old.
"You weren’t?" Eddy seemed a bit skeptical. "Were you ever nervous?"
"Are you fibbin’ a little bit?" Eddy said, a large smile crinkling his face.
Eddy kept smiling.
On Oct. 20, Justin, a fourth-grader at Midway Heights Elementary School, competed in the All American Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, Ohio. The congress, started in 1967, is a three-week-long horse and trade show at which riders of all ages come to display their skills with the smart and gentle creatures.
According to the website Horse Channel, 6,000 horses and 650,000 people congregated on the event’s seven acres this year.
"They said when we were out there that that’s the largest single-breed animal show in the world," Eddy said.
"People come from Europe," Justin added.
Justin had wanted to compete at the congress for a couple of years now, said Stacey Roberson, a trainer who runs Diamond R Quarter Horses in Lee's Summit. She started working with Justin earlier this year.
"I know he’s just 9, but, you know, he’s wanted to do this for a long time and he’s proved to his parents that he’s going to work hard enough to do it," Roberson said. "That’s a big deal to me when a kid works that hard at that young age to do something like this."
At age 4, Justin won his first lead-line competition, where the child-rider sits on the horse and a parent leads it. Since he was 5, Justin has competed with a quarter horse named Glow, who is now 16.
"Sometimes we call her Glow Worm, don’t we?" Eddy said to his son.
Roberson said quarter horses are well-known for having good temperaments.
"They’re a little more docile — especially for kids, they’re a little easier to get along with," Eddy said. "I grew up, kind of, in the rodeo arena, doing roping and stuff like that. We always rode quarter horses, so it’s where we ended up."
When Justin was 6, Eddy took his son to Rudolf Bennitt Wildlife Area near Harrisburg to ride some trails and creeks with Glow and Lacey, an older horse Justin rode during his lead-line days.
"We started riding and we were having fun," Eddy, who was riding Lacey, recalled. "We’d been riding for a long time. All of a sudden I heard Justin saying, 'Dad! Dad! Dad!'"
Eddy let loose a hearty laugh at the memory and continued:
"I looked back and the girth had gotten loose, and so the saddle just slid halfway over and he’s sitting on the side of the horse. I jumped off and ran back there and grabbed him because I thought if that horse spooks or something it’s just going to be a mess. But Glow just stood there."
Eventually, Glow will pass to Justin’s little sister, 5-year-old Abby, who’s also interested in competing.
Justin said he got into showing quarter horses because of his parents. "My mom showed horses and my dad had a horse when he was a kid," he said.
Justin, though, has already achieved something they're still trying to do. "We said, 'You made the finals at Congress. That’s something we’ve never done,'" Eddy said.
Out of 128 entries in his class, Justin was one of the 24 riders who made it to the finals in small-fry, or 9-and-under, horsemanship. He didn’t place in the top 15, but this was his first year competing.
"Our goal this year was for Justin to make the finals at congress, and he did that," Eddy said, "so now we have to come up with our next set of goals."
To make the finals, Justin worked on showmanship and horsemanship on his parents’ farm off Interstate 70 in the months leading up to the competition. Next to a red-brick house, a rectangular patch of dirt, fenced off with white metal bars, served as Justin’s training site.
Here, with a view of the family's large, silver barn and a small lake to the east, Justin practiced showmanship for 30 minutes a day and horsemanship for 45 minutes a day for the month leading up to the congress.
Showmanship, as Eddy explained it, involves the person leading the horse around a pattern of cones, trotting a certain distance and pivoting the horse around. It’s judged on the horseman, Eddy said, not the horse. How well you can communicate with the animal is important.
Horsemanship, on the other hand, calls for the rider to make the horse walk and trot going forward, then walk backward. This competition is also judged on the rider.
"We’ve always had the horse here," Eddy said. "And we’ve always thought — we still believe — that the nice thing about that is he can ride every day."
Some nights, to improve his hand placement and posture, Justin would sit in a saddle on a metal stand used for storage in the kitchen. He'd place a water bottle in each hand and sit with a straight back for up to 20 minutes to simulate what he would do in the arena at the congress.
While he did this, his parents would quiz him on his multiplication tables with flashcards, Eddy said.
Along with that training regiment, Justin’s parents took him to lessons with Roberson, whom the family met at a horse show in St. Louis.
"We’d always just taught Justin ourselves, and he was doing great," Eddy said. "He did fine, but we thought, number one, she has some knowledge that we don’t, and number two, it seems like she had a really great way of communicating with the kids."
The Eddys started driving their son to Lee’s Summit for training every other week. To prepare for the congress, they made that trip every week.
"He’s a great rider," Roberson said. "He listens. We have fun. He does everything I tell him. He’s a really good student."
Usually, she has her riders fill out goal sheets at the beginning of the year. Since Justin didn’t start until a little later, she didn’t have him fill one out.
"I think his goal this year was just to improve and start to place a little better in his classes," Roberson said, "but I’ll be interested to see what his goals are for next year."
When asked what his goal was for next year’s congress, which he plans to compete in, Justin answered, "first place."
"First place in everything," he said. "That’s my whole goal."
Eddy gave his son an amused look.
"Yeah, he doesn’t agree with my personality," Justin said.
"Well," Eddy said, "I’m not opposed to you having high self-esteem. How are you going to accomplish that?"
"I haven’t figured out that part yet."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.