Cover story: Riding high -- Hollie Kucera of Atherton competes in nationals this month
Hollie Kucera turned heads when she won the California high school state championship in cutting, a rodeo event, during the state finals last month in Bishop, California. After all, it was only the second year the 16-year-old had competed in the event, in which the rider and horse separate a cow from a herd and prevent it from rejoining the herd.
But Hollie's feat does not seem as unexpected when you consider she has been participating in rodeo events since she was about 8 years old. She got a helping hand in cutting from her older sister Kirsty, who also competed in high school. Kirsty passed her cutting horse, 4-year-old CiCi Slippin', on to Hollie about a year ago.
"(We) definitely help each other out," Hollie says of the four Kucera girls. "Kirsty especially, she taught me everything I know about rodeo and riding. My mom taught me how to ride horses, but Kirsty really got me going."
Hollie, who just finished her sophomore year at Palo Alto Prep, found herself in third place heading into the final round of competition at the state finals. She finished the meet, posting a score of 217, and went to watch a movie under a tree. A few minutes later, the girl who had been in first place approached her, gave her a hug and walked away without saying anything. Later, the girl's mother came by and told Hollie she had won the event.
The victory qualified her for the national high school rodeo in Springfield, Illinois, from July 24 to 30.
Hollie made the switch to cutting from equestrian vaulting and jumping, essentially gymnastics on a horse, which she quit because the judging system had grown "too political," she says. Her mother, Heidi, competed in English-style equestrian events on the East Coast before moving West.
Though Hollie only recently began to compete in rodeo, she has been practicing it for years. Her mother introduced her to the sport because she wanted to familiarize her four daughters with as many styles of riding as possible. When she saw a flier for "Eddie Cohen's Roping Clinic" in a local feed store about eight years ago, Heidi Kucera called the number and spoke to Cohen.
According to Hollie, Cohen asked her mother, "Can I yell at them?" She told him that he could, and Cohen began to train the girls in rodeo events.
Horse riding is no small part of the Kuceras' daily lives. Their property contains a stable, a grazing field and a small track where the sisters practice roping. It was easy for the sisters to ride around the area when they were younger, excursions that Hollie remembers fondly.
"We would go out when I was about 4 and double up on horses, with two of us on each horse," she says. "(We would ride) to the Bay from here. We'd be gone for eight hours, and have to call my mom to pick us up at the horse trail. We did so much stuff we shouldn't have done. We rode through yards, all over the place."
Hollie's familiarity with the animals is evident as she walks around the Kucera property with Kirsty. She stretches some of the horses' hind legs, explains how their circulation works and describes what makes a good race horse.
"Some people are scared of horses, but they won't hurt you," she says. "They're basically just big dogs."
Hollie recalls an incident when a horse bucked her and almost rolled over her in a river, then got up quickly when it realized that she was there.
But Hollie hasn't always been so lucky. She has torn ligaments in her knees four times — just part of the territory, she says.
While most parents teach their children responsibility by making them clean their rooms or do the dishes, Hollie was cleaning the family's entire stable by the time she was 10 years old.
Some of the lessons she learned were harder to come by. When Hollie was 9, her first horse broke its leg. Her mother left the decision of whether to euthanize the horse up to Hollie. She chose to put it down, and says she cried for a week afterward.
Hollie was faced with a similar decision a week before the race in Bishop. Bubba, her roping horse, took a spill and shattered its ankle while walking back to the stable. Her mother was visiting the East Coast at the time, so Hollie and Kirsty had to handle the situation on their own.
"It was actually harder the second time," she says. "He was my best friend. I had him for three years."
Hollie was forced to compete in Bishop on a horse that she had trained with for only three sessions, though she says it takes about a year to get in tune with a horse. Without her roping horse, she failed to qualify for nationals in three other events — team roping, breakaway roping and barrel racing.
One possible downside to Hollie's dedication to horses is that it doesn't leave her with much free time. When school isn't in session, she works with the horses much of the day, feeding and cleaning them.
At school, she says, she focuses on her work and tries to be as efficient as possible so she can spend more time with the horses. Being away from them wasn't as much of a problem until she started high school — her mother home-schooled her before then.
She says she hasn't spent a day away from horses in the last year, apart from a family vacation to King's Canyon over the July Fourth weekend.
"We're going on a cruise in Italy in August, and I don't know how I'm going to deal with that," she jokes.
By then Hollie will know how she fared at nationals. No matter how she does there, she can still claim the family cutting record — for now. Holly scored a 77 in December out of a possible 80, just enough to edge Kirsty's 75.
The feat is listed on a small whiteboard on a wall of the Kuceras' stable; the board keeps track of family records, rather than competitions that the sisters have won.
Family bragging rights will continue to be important to the Kuceras. After cutting in high school, Kirsty is now competing professionally in the Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association.