Horsemanship

A World Show of Firsts

The Stock Horse of Texas community rallied behind 14-year-old Emma Vidal to ensure she checked off a bunch of “firsts” on her list of goals.

The Stock Horse of Texas community rallied behind 14-year-old Emma Vidal to ensure she checked off a bunch of “firsts” on her list of goals.

Music is synonymous with major horse shows. Popular tunes fuel riders’ adrenaline and entertain spectators. But the arena was silent when 14-year-old Emma Vidal signaled for cows during her boxing runs at the Stock Horse of Texas World Show & Derby held October 25-29, 2023, in Abilene, Texas.

It was so quiet that Jimmy Sorrell, a cow horse trainer and SHTX cattle manager, says it seemed as if he and Emma were the only two in the coliseum. At the end of Emma’s two runs, the crowd erupted in cheers and tears.

The SHTX team put a bell on the cow’s neck and orange duct tape on its head so Vidal could identify its location in the pen. Photo by High Cotton Promotions

With just 10% vision in her right eye, Emma relies on a bell around the cow’s neck to know its location in the arena. The SHTX team wrapped the cow’s head in neon duct tape to help Emma distinguish the head from the tail and hand-selected dark-colored cattle to contrast against the gray netting.

“Watching her take on the boxing and how collected she was put life in a new perspective,” Jimmy says. He was in the pen with her to offer assistance on the cow’s location and to hold it from running down the wall.

“We were introduced about 20 minutes before her first run, and I was more than happy to know they trusted me enough to help her, knowing that we hadn’t met before,” he says. “She’s so calm and collected.”

Even though she didn’t show it, Emma says she was slightly nervous. She had practiced some at home before but had not had an opportunity to work a cow at a show.

“I was so excited,” she says. “I was curious to see what it was like, and I had a lot of fun.”

While this was Emma’s boxing debut, she has competed with SHTX on and off for four years, starting in reining and then adding trail and stock horse pleasure. She has relied on helpers wearing turquoise shirts to stand at specific points in each pattern to provide enough contrast, especially in the trail class, for her to identify maneuver locations.

But at the World Show, she decided to go it alone in trail.

Emma memorized the trail pattern and decided to complete it without the assistance of friends who typically stand at obstacles. Photo by High Cotton Promotions

“The arena was split in half, the pen was so small, and I was able to practice the night before to the point where I could memorize where each obstacle was,” Emma says. “I knew I wouldn’t get off the course because it really wasn’t that big.”

The Path to Horses

Before horses, Emma was a high-level competitive gymnast. But on February 24, 2019, she was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The cancer created pressure on her optic nerve, which caused her to lose her vision, leaving her legally blind.

Since childhood, Emma’s mom, Kristen, had been friends with Cherie Morton, founder and executive director of the faith-based horsemanship organization Sonny James Equine Ministries. The friends thought visiting the barn would distract Emma from all the medical procedures.  

“Cherie had an older horse that was really safe, so when Emma was feeling good during her cancer treatment, she would go to the barn and ride,” Kristen says. “They [Cherie and her husband, Johnny,] have always been involved in SHTX and had a ranch horse team that would go show. Emma finally decided she wanted to try to show, and so Cherie just figured out how to make it work.”

The Stock Horse of Texas community rallied behind 14-year-old Emma Vidal to ensure she checked off a bunch of “firsts” on her list of goals.
Emma Vidal and Jimmy Sorrell share a high-five after her debut boxing run. Photo by High Cotton Promotions

Emma continued to ride Cherie’s horse until she received Taris Favorite Trick, or “Trick,” as a Christmas present in 2020. After the 2022 SHTX World Show, he was retired due to the wear and tear on his joints from his early reining career.

“It just wasn’t fair to him for us to keep asking him to continue in pain,” Kristen says. “He has the perfect retirement at an Equine Assisted Learning ranch near us and loves the attention from kids that go through their program. They don’t ride him. They just use horses as a tool for kids to develop problem-solving skills.”

In late 2022, a Wish with Wings, an organization that grants wishes for Texas youth with life-threatening conditions, made Emma’s wish for a new reining horse come true. The family dedicated months and drove thousands of miles to find One Last Starbuck, or “Latte,” in May 2023.

“He’s also a reining horse, but he is more willing to work with me in the other events, and so I’m able to have fun and not get frustrated,” Emma says. “I also like that he’s not as experienced as my other reining horse, so it gives me a chance to learn how to train him.”

The Stock Horse of Texas community rallied behind 14-year-old Emma Vidal to ensure she checked off a bunch of “firsts” on her list of goals.
Emma has only 10% vision in her right eye and relies on a bell around the cow’s neck to know its location in the arena. Photo by High Cotton Promotions

“She is so confident on him,” Cherie adds. “If you look at her riding him, you don’t know she is blind. She’s shared with me that her goal in life is to inspire others with disabilities so that they know there are no limits. I truly believe that’s what she is doing.”

One of the Gang

The Stock Horse of Texas community rallied behind 14-year-old Emma Vidal to ensure she checked off a bunch of “firsts” on her list of goals.
SHTX youth officers created the True Grit Award to recognize Emma’s courage and determination. Photo courtesy of Stock Horse of Texas

At the end of last year, the youth officers approached SHTX leadership with the idea of recognizing Emma’s courage and grit. They held a bake sale to raise money to present her with the first-ever True Grit Award belt buckle, which features her name in brail.

“It’s neat to see how the kids rally behind her, support her and want her to enjoy showing just like other youth riders,” says Jill Dunkel, SHTX executive director. “Stock Horse of Texas is very honored to be a part of her story and that she chooses to compete with us. We look forward to having Emma show with us and her new horse.”

Emma is now three years off treatment, and so far, all tests show no lasting effects from chemo or radiation; she is a healthy teenager, according to Kristen. With a clean bill of health and a new partner in Latte, Emma has set big goals for 2024.

“I want to go to [National Reining Horse Association] shows since I like focusing on reining, and I’ve never gotten to go to one of those,” Emma says. “As for SHTX, I’m going to focus on the little stuff that can get me more plus points in my patterns because I hope to get at least Top 10 or reserve champion in the reining.”

Follow Emma’s journey here.

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