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Team 'jumps' from amateur to champions

Cameron Gray feels like he's soaring when his horse carries him over an almost three-foot-high jump. "It's different from anything else you'll ever do," he said. "When I'm jumping ... it's like flying for a few minutes." When a horse and rider ar...

Cameron Gray feels like he's soaring when his horse carries him over an almost three-foot-high jump.

"It's different from anything else you'll ever do," he said. "When I'm jumping ... it's like flying for a few minutes."

When a horse and rider are jumping something clicks between them, he said.

The 12-year-old practices with his horse, Legally Blond, about five times per week in a sport that's growing in northwestern Wisconsin.

Cameron, Legally Blond, Katie Stenroos, 13, and her horse Jets Rounder were the first competitors from Douglas County to participate in the 4-H Hunter & Dressage Show, a state competition in Plymouth June 22-24.

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They came home grand champions. Cameron competed in six events, Katie in five. Both took grand champion placing in one event.

No one had ever competed from Douglas County, so they had no idea what to expect, said Erin Gray, Cameron's mother.

Only kids who finished in the top 10 placed, and each event had at least 30 kids competing. Cameron and Katie only missed placing in one event each, Gray said.

"They were awesome," said coach Lina Wermter.

Generally to compete at state, riders have to qualify at their county fair. The Douglas County fair does not have enough hunter exercises for a kid to qualify, so Katie and Cameron had to apply and get approval from Douglas County 4-H representatives.

Katie was nervous driving down to Plymouth and said she hoped to place in at least one event. Several experienced riders and well trained horses competed, she said.

"They're both really good riders," Wermter said.

The coach was especially impressed by Cameron's showing. The 12-year-old competed in A division, which includes fences at a height of 2-foot-6, the highest fences in the 4-H competition.

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"He rocked. He certainly held his own," Wermter said. "He was the youngest person in his division."

Katie participated in C division with fences at 18 inches. Both riders have been jumping for a few years and have learned their skill through lessons and smaller shows. Learning to jump is a slow process, Wermter said.

Jumping fences involves balance and complicated timing. Both rider and horse need to practice all the time to keep fit.

In addition to practice, Cameron and Katie have lessons two days per week. They put a lot of time into it, she said.

State competition wasn't the only first for Douglas County riders this summer. The Bits and Spurs Horse Club held its first hunter jumper show July 7-8 at the Bayfield County Fair Grounds in Iron River.

The Iron River show was an eye-opener to how many people in the area are interested in jumping, Wermter said. The show offered competition in hunter, jump and equitation (straddling) skills. Almost 50 riders competed from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.

The sport is popular in the southern part of Wisconsin, but riders from the north generally have to travel hours for shows and clinics. People in this area are interested in jumping but many are unable or unwilling to travel long distances to learn more, Wermter said.

When Cameron and Katie competed at state they faced a seven hour car ride both ways. Most competitors didn't know where Douglas County was, Katie said.

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The sport is growing in interest in northern Wisconsin because of its growing presence in media such as horse magazines and television, said Nola Stenroos, Katie's mother.

Cameron's interest in jumping began when he tried it at a riding clinic. He enjoyed jumping with his horse and began working on jumping with his trainer. He started jumping at 18 inches and moved up to 2-feet, 6-inches.

"It's just really fun," he said.

Cameron's goal now training his horse to jump up to 4 feet.

Last weekend's show gave local riders a chance to see a hunter jumper show close to home and learn about the sport, Wermter said.

Both Cameron and Katie competed and helped behind the scenes. Everyone in Bits and Spurs worked to put on the show, Cameron said. The group is working to make it an annual event.

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