Trick riding dreams: Two South Dakota cowgirls perform at Black Hills Horse Expo
Two young girls will blaze around the perimeter of the arena at Black Hills Horse Expo Oct. 6 and 7, one standing atop her horse with a flag streaming out behind her, the other hanging off the side of her buckskin gelding, her fingers gripping her horse’s black mane. At 10 years old, Jemiah Belitz and Candice Aamot are two of three trick riders in South Dakota. Both have been at the sport for only a short time, however, they are sought after for professional performances and have excelled in competitions.
Candice has been trick riding for three years, getting her start out of a desire to try her hand, having seen the movie Cowgirls and Angels. Her mother Anne conceded, though hesitantly, due to the danger of the sport.
“We rodeo, my older daughter does, and trick riding is a little different thing,” Anne said. “I questioned the safety, but I didn’t want her to be 20 or 30 years old, and have her say that she had really wanted to trick ride, but her mom wouldn’t let her.”
Candice has grown and expanded her trick repertoire under the tutelage of Madison McDonald-Thomas, a trick rider who travels the United States and Canada performing and teaching. She has enrolled in her clinics several times and can always reach out to her with questions, common in the tightly-knit, small trick-riding community.
“Once you go to a clinic, that clinician will help you however they can,” said Jemiah’s mother, Jen. “They realize that clinic is just the start. Most of them, their first concern is always safety.”
Jemiah followed in Jen’s footsteps with her interest in trick riding. Her mom first saw trick riding at the Black Hills Horse Expo eleven years ago, when she was pregnant with Jemiah.
“I had grown up around horses, and we rodeoed in North Dakota, but these three Canadian girls just wowed me and and the crowd,” Jen said. “They opened for Tommy Turvey, and later did a trick riding 101 clinic. After seeing them, if just kind of fizzled, and I didn’t think about it as something I would do.”
Jen did eventually trick ride, starting when Jemiah was two years old, and Jemiah picked it up when she was nine years old getting a start with her mom and seeking professional clinics as well. Her first competition was at the Black Hills Stock Show in Rapid City this February, where she won the youth age group. Candice competed at the same competition and qualified for national finals in the peewee age group.
“The competition was probably one of our biggest learning experiences,” Jen said “Jemiah was able to work with Tad Griffith, who is probably, I would say, one of the most respected trick riders in this time period. To have him be the judge and also be a mentor to all the kids was just the best experience and best guidance she could have.”
Her favorite trick is the hippodrome or liberty stand, in which she stands on straps by the pommel of the saddle. “She says it’s her favorite because she feels like she’s flying,” Jen said. “We made a few t-shirts and one said, ‘Riding a horse is like flying without wings.’”
For starting trick riders, finding an affordable horse already started or finished in trick riding can be unattainable. Finding or training good-minded, trusty horses just for trick riding, however, can be done.
Both the Belitz family, from Hot Springs, South Dakota, and the Aamot family, from DeSmet, South Dakota, adapted horses that they already owned to be a safe fit to carry their daughters around unfamiliar arenas throughout the region.
Jemiah’s horse, a 14-year-old Spanish Barb Mustang cross, was raised by her dad’s dad, and had been her mom’s since he was a two year old. Shadow had been used for ranching, brandings, guided Yellowstone trail rides, and a few small trail rides before being exposed to trick riding by Jen.
“He was a really easy horse for both of us. I did a few amateur performances off of him, so he was ready for Jemiah to start with him,” Jen said. “He had never done a large performance before the Rapid City competition.”
The Belitzes hauled Shadow to any arena around them in order to expose the gelding to all that they could before the competition. Factors that may spook a horse but aren’t always considered include lighting, bleachers, and dirt kicking up on banners.
“We called every arena we could and hauled to ride,” Jen said. “Private arenas have liability worries when I say, ‘My daughter is a trick rider; can she come hang upside down on her horse and ride around?’”
Candice also inherited a horse from her mother. After hearing that Anne’s two-year-old had to be put down due to an injury, a friend of Anne’s graciously offered her a weanling that someone had paid the downpayment but never collected their horse. Anne paid the other half for the buckskin five years ago, and Dusty has since developed into a reliable mount for Candice.
“He is bred to run and has quite a long stride for as small of a horse as he is. She started trick riding on him at two-and-a-half-years,” Anne said. “I would never, ever, ever say that’s a good idea to trick ride on one that young. I broke him to ride, and Candice has done all the patterning on him. That’s how Dusty came into our lives.”
Candice also trick rides on a pony, Jewel, that came into their lives by accident. A pony the Aamots bought in the fall of the year grew gradually pudgier as the winter went on, or so Anne chose to believe. On Mother’s Day four years ago, Pony had a baby, Jewel, who has since become another of Candice’s trick-riding mounts.
“We don’t buy anything ready trained,” Anne said. “We had to do all the work on them ourselves. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have a lot of time.”
Candice, in particular, is quite shy, her mom said, but she busts out of her shell when she is performing.
“She is as shy as can be, but she will get out there on that horse and just smile. As for the crowd, the more they cheer, the harder those horses of hers run,” Anne said. “Both girls are very good. They have a presence about them that is really great; I think the crowd will see it too.”
The two girls met at the competition earlier this year and haven’t seen one another since then. Candice and Jemiah will perform at the Black Hills Horse Expo at noon Saturday, Oct. 6, and at 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 7. The following sponsors have made it possible for the 10-year-olds to perform at the event: Y Bar L Saddlery, Boot Barn, and Dirt Road Leather.