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SPOTLIGHT: Illinois girl is pony-riding champion

DECATUR, Ill. — Ella Oelfke, a tiny 7-year-old first-grader, weighs 53 pounds. The pony she rides weighs 800 pounds. She is in complete control.

Ella last year became a national champion in leadline equitation in Pony of the Americas competition — as a newcomer to competition. In leadline equitation, Ella's mother, Lea Ann, walks with her.

"Tears, my pony, is my best friend," Ella is sure. Tears? The official name of the 6-year-old Appaloosa mare is Perfect Tear Drops. "The first thing she sees every morning at 6 o'clock is Tears," said Lea Ann. "The last thing she sees at night is Tears. They're buddies, they're a team. She feeds Tears. She cleans the stall. She takes care of her buddy."

Ella's all-winning 2011 season, unheard of for a beginner, included:

— First in the Eastern Classic in Edinburg, Ind.

— First in regional competition in Lansing, Mich.

— High-point rider in the Missouri regional in St. Louis

— First in the international show in Lake St. Louis, Mo.

— High point rider in her division in Illinois competition.

— National champion.

"It's quite an achievement, quite an honor," said JoyseBanister, executive secretary of the Pony of Americas Inc., in Indianapolis, Ind. "There is very stiff competition in all age groups. We have an age 6 and under group, age 8 and under group, age 9 to 12 group, age 13 to 18 group and age 19 and over group."

The competitions are a test of the rider's and pony's skill and training plus appearance and style. Pony of the Americas ponies look, act and perform like small stock-type horses. A distinctive breed, they are calm and gentle, an ideal riding horse for children.

During this season, starting April 28 in Shelbyville, Tenn., Ella will advance one class without her mother by her side. She will compete in Western pleasure and English and gaming events. Trips are scheduled to Georgia, St. Louis, Iowa and Indiana.

Will a new season make a difference? "She always brings home a trophy or medal," said David Oelfke, her father. Ella's mother will again be driving from state to state. David, retired after 20 years in the Navy and employed at Tate & Lyle, is seldom available to make the trips.

Ella is a child prodigy. At the age of 4, she was racing a motorcycle and finishing third in state competition. "Out of nowhere, she told us she wanted a pony," David Oelfke said. "Now she eats and sleeps riding."

It was bound to happen. Ella's mother grew up just like Ella. She was Lea Ann Hamilton then, from Moweaqua. "I did exactly what Ella is doing," Lea Ann Oelfke said. "I was a two-time world champion. I know what she's thinking," she explained.

"I do all of her training — it's a full-time job. Thirty years later, it's wonderful."

"Ella has been thrown twice. She doesn't give up. She keeps working. She comes home from McGaughey School in Mount Zion and heads for the barn."

Ella's 9-year-old brother, Jake, is now being introduced to the routine on Freckles, another calm pony. And also in the barn is Daphne, too young yet for the show ring.

This family's pony days are sure to go on and on.

Information from: Herald & Review,