She began riding at 4 years old but not under circumstances that her parents, David and Cindy Harrison of Jasper, expected.
Emily, now 7, lost the pinkie and ring finger on her right hand in an accident several years ago.
“Before they took the bandages off, we had to tell her that she was missing two fingers. The only question she asked was if she could ride horses,” David Harrison said.
One month after the accident, Emily’s parents enrolled her at Equines Assisting Special Individuals, a therapeutic riding program based in Jasper.
Emily met with a physical therapist the week that she began her lessons at EASI. After only one ride, she returned for further preliminary measurements.
“She (the physical therapist) said, ‘I don’t know what you guys have been doing, but whatever it is, continue to do it because she’s almost where she needs to be already without physical therapy,’” Cindy Harrison said.
Emily remained with EASI for two and a half years.
Last June, she received a horse for her birthday that her parents purchased from Amanda Phillips, owner of Inspired Equestrian in Empire. Soon Emily was taking lessons with Phillips, who introduced her to the equestrian sport known as dressage.
The International Equestrian Federation describes dressage as “the highest expression of horse training.”
Phillips said it is also referred to as ballet for horses.
She added that while dressage does have some youth riders, it takes an atypically intelligent child to even attempt the sport. “You have to have a knowledge of how the horse moves, not just be able to ride. Emily is a very bright little girl. Every concept I threw at her, she latched onto,” Phillips said.
Emily took so well to dressage that the Harrisons bought her Tessa D., a champion in another event who exemplified the movement and work ethic necessary for dressage.
Because the local circuit had ended for the year, Emily’s first competition was on a national stage — the Feathered Horse Classic held last October in Perry, Ga.
She won two high point championships as well as nearly two dozen ribbons at the show.
In January, Emily returned to the Feathered Horse Classic in Jacksonville, Fla. She not only won her dressage competition and earned an additional 11 ribbons but also bested a 30-year trainer.
“I’ve been teaching youth for 12 years, and I’ve never had one at her age progress to that level so quickly,” Phillips said.
Tessa D. outweighs Emily by more than 1,400 pounds. Her ability to control the animal with so many eyes watching has amazed many who have watched the two compete.
Phillips has told numerous young riders that they must believe they are a champion before they can earn a championship. Emily displays that confidence each time she enters the arena.
She doesn’t falter even under pressure.
In Georgia, Tessa D. tensed during their dressage test when a road sweeper drove by.
“We all clinched because none of us could help her at that point, but Emily rode her through it. She relaxed Tessa without getting scared herself,” Phillips said. “We go over what to do if a horse spooks, but you don’t really expect them to think about that when something unexpected happens. Emily did exactly what she was taught to.”
Although Emily and Tessa D are still at the introductory level of dressage, there is a likelihood that they will test well enough to level up at their next competition in April. Their goal is nothing short of eventually reaching the highest level of competition, Grand Prix.
“It depends on how fast the horse progresses. For Tessa to have only tested in dressage at two shows and to have already won, it says a lot about how hard Emily practices,” Phillips said.
Cindy Harrison said of her daughter, “She would ride seven days a week if we let her.”
“The horse needs a break,” Phillips jokingly replied.