Winner at Heart

Lilly Stephens is shown here with her off-the-track Quarter Horse, Jess Kool. Lilly competes in barrel racing and pole bending in West Virginia High School Rodeo and National Barrel Horse Association rodeos and hopes to soon be competing in roping events. Photo courtesy of Lilly Stephens

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Sixteen year old Lilly Stephens, a junior at Pocahontas County High School, is one of four young people who represent our county in West Virginia High School Rodeo events all over the state and region.

When Lilly rides into the arena, she’s as dedicated as any rodeo girl on the circuit, but this young rider also has a philosophical attitude about competition.

“Riding is about so much more than winning,” she said. “Horses mean more to me than that.

“For me, competing isn’t about winning – it’s about competing against myself.

“If I can be a hundredth of a second faster every time out of the gate, then eventually I can win.”

Having a mom who grew up around horses, and now having horses here in Pocahontas County, set Lilly on the equestrian path.

Lily and her family live on a farm in Marlinton.

“It’s right in town, but kind of out of town,” she explained.

When she was in sixth grade, Lilly moved to Marlinton from Bridgeport, and began attending Marlinton Middle School.

“I thought that it was going to be such a big change, moving here,” she said. “And it was different –  not having a mall or a Walmart.

“I mean, nothing’s easily accessible from here.

“But I grew up in the country, so it wasn’t really that much of a change,” she added.

Ashley Peacock Sheets breeds and trains a barn full of Quarter Horses a stone’s throw away, and that helped a lot.

Lilly’s mom, Margie Stephens, gave her a 23 year old, 14’2 hand, bay Quarter Horse mare named Florah, and that made all the difference.

Lilly and Florah started training with Nicole Brock when she was 13.

“Nicole started me running barrels right away, and I think I fell off at every single show that year,” Lilly laughed.

“I joined West Virginia High School Rodeo in August of 2020, competing in barrel racing and pole bending.”

For those chasing points, there’s a rigorous WVHSR schedule which keeps competitors on the road, trailering their horses to rodeos throughout the year.

Lilly also belongs to the National Barrel Horse Association, which offers opportunities to compete almost every weekend. Its events are held at several ranches in West Virginia.

The NBHA venue where Lilly competes the most is the Good Evening Ranch in Canvas.

Between the two organizations, to stay competitive, Lilly finds herself at a rodeo or a horse show one to three times a month – without letting her grades suffer.

Lily and Florah have been a good barrel racing and pole bending team.

But it came time for 26 year old Florah to retire and to let a younger horse take Lilly into the arenas.

“Florah used to be eager to go, but now she likes retirement,” Lilly said. “She seems happy to stay home and eat all day.”

Now Lilly’s competition horse is a gelding named Doc – a 21 year old, athletic Appendix Quarter Horse – half Thoroughbred and half Quarter Horse.

“Mom bought him from Ashley for me,” Lilly said.

“He was from here, and now he’s come back from a farm in Virginia, and I think he was glad to get back.

“His first owner competed with him in rodeos, and then he was trained to be a trail horse and now he’s doing rodeo again.

“Doc’s a little old for a barrel horse, but he really hangs in there.

“He has the most amazing memory.

“I only have to show him once – like when we’re running a pattern in barrels, and I need him to do something different. I only have to show him once,” she said, proudly.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of horses for Lilly to ride.

 “I’ve had six horses so far,” she said. “And I also work with Ashley and another trainer on their horses, too.

“Horses are usually trained to do one job – not that they can’t learn other jobs, too.

“They’re so interesting.

“They each have their own quirks. Just like people do.

“You have to recognize their habits and take into account the variations from one horse to another – just like people.”

Horses may come and go around Lilly, but she has a special place in her heart for all of them.

“Of all our horses, the only horse I didn’t compete on was Mrs. Pickleworth,” she said.

“She’s not here anymore. She’s got a new job doing trail riding in the New River Gorge.

“Breaking and training is probably what I like best.

“I would like to start competing in roping, but I don’t have a roping horse right now.

“Doc won’t work for that because he’s too ‘hot’ – that’s the Thoroughbred in him. He’s too fast and excitable,” she said.

But Lilly has another candidate in mind for roping.

“I think I might be able to use our draft horse, Maximus,” Lilly said. “Well, he’s actually my mom’s horse.

“She’s a good rider. She grew up riding English. She and Max are a great team.

“He’s a big gelding, about seventeen hands tall. A retired Amish work horse who – we think – is probably a Percheron Standardbred cross.

“In 2019, I trained him to do poles and barrels, and he’s been great at that.

“Max is more-easy going than Doc, and I think he’ll really take to roping.”

Although she very much hopes to continue riding and training horses, Lilly also has her sights set on a college degree.

She’s leaning toward the sciences – nursing, veterinary science or equine chiropractic – and she’s going to be plenty busy filling out applications.

“My plan is to apply to every state college on the east coast,” she laughed.

One of the many benefits of belonging to an organization like the West Virginia High School Rodeo Association are the scholarship opportunities it makes available to its student members.

“I’m planning to compete through my senior year and go to a college where I can continue to compete,” Lilly said.

“I’m rehabbing a horse right now – Jess Kool – an off-the track Quarter Horse gelding who had a muscle tear in his left hind leg, and he needed some time off.

“But he’s just about well now, so, as soon as we’re sure he’s okay, I’m thinking to start him on some barrels.

“If he gets good, he might be a good college horse for me.”

Lilly is a versatile rider and rodeo is just one kind of riding that she enjoys.

“I love rodeo, but I also love jumping,” she stated.

Lilly has a lot to say on the subject of horses.

“I love them,” Lilly said. “They don’t owe us anything, but they love us completely and will try their best to do whatever we ask,”

“And it’s amazing how forgiving horses are.

“Every horse is different. They each have such different personalities.

“We just have to be patient and tell them what we want in a way they can understand.

“My training philosophy is firmness, fairness and consistency.

“You don’t need to be aggressive, but you can’t be a pushover,” she insisted.

“Consistency is the key.”

Lilly credits her “amazing support system” for her success – “my mom, Nicole, Ashley, Hannah, Josey, my Peacock family and my family have helped me so much.”

And she credits her horses.

“They give me so much; they’ll always be important in my life,” Lilly said with certainty.

“Being with horses means you’re learning something every day.

“It was horses that gave me a sense of security and confidence and taught me responsibility.

“I’ll always love them.”

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