Emily Sears likes to go fast, and later this month, she’ll see just how fast she and her horse Mo can weave through six poles at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Sears, a rising senior at Western Albemarle High School, will represent Virginia at the rodeo along with more than a dozen other students. She competed in 13 rodeos throughout the state and from New Jersey to Georgia to qualify for the national finals. She’ll compete in the pole bending event after finishing in the top four in the state.
She’ll travel with her mother, Katie, and Mo to Lincoln for the weeklong rodeo. Qualifying has long been her goal, and this will mark her first trip to the finals. She qualified last year but decided not to go because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m excited to meet all the new people,” Sears said. “It’s the biggest rodeo in the world.”
More than 1,600 contestants from across the country, as well as Mexico, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are expected to converge in Lincoln from July 18 to 24. They’ll compete for cash and other prizes, including more than $375,000 in college scholarships.
“I’m super thankful for the opportunity,” Sears said of going to nationals. “I know it’s not something that everyone is able to do. I’m blessed to have the opportunity.”
Although Sears only qualified in pole bending, she also competes in other events open to girls, including barrel racing, goat tying and breakaway roping. She rides and practices almost every day.
Her favorite event is goat tying, in which the contestant rides down an arena toward a goat on a 10-foot line that’s attached to a maypole-like stake in the ground. The contestant needs to jump on the horse and tie three of the goats’ legs.
Sears competes in the event on her 27-year-old horse, Arya. As she looked to improve in other events, her family recently found Mo, an 8-year-old Appaloosa mare, whom Emily trained to run the pole and barrel pattern.
When she isn’t practicing the patterns, Sears rides the horses on the trails around their barn off Garth Road.
She also participates in other rodeos and competitions through the Virginia Cattle Association and 4-H. Between all of those activities, she’s gone almost every weekend.
“It doesn’t leave much time for anything else,” said Katie Sears, who rode horses growing up.
But rodeo is new to the Sears family.
Emily Sears discovered rodeo in eighth grade after competing in jumping and other horse events. A Virginia rodeo queen introduced her to the sport.
She likes the camaraderie among competitors and how they help each other.
“It’s a unique sport,” she said. “We’re competing against each other but still cheering for each other … It’s a cool experience to be part of.”
Sears added that the Virginia High School Rodeo Association is like a family.
“We have cookouts and movie nights at almost every rodeo,” she said.
During practices, Katie Sears helps out her daughter, setting up the poles in the arena and moving the barrels into position.
She said she’s losing a bit of sleep over the drive to Lincoln.
“She has her license and is going to log some miles,” she said.
Overall, she’s looking forward to the experience and spending time with her daughter.
To help with trip expenses, they’ve set up a GoFundMe page and have received a lot of support from friends and family, which they are thankful for, Emily Sears said.
To follow along once the national competition begins, go to nhsra.com/nhsfr.