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Competitive riding is a way of life for local family

Behind the scenes at the Menlo Charity Horse Show

Sofia Jain, a 13-year-old from Atherton, says she doesn't have time for much but horses and school in her life, but she wishes she could spend even more time riding.

"She would like to be home schooled and not do anything but this," says Sofia's mom, Suzanne Jain, who also rides competitively.

So far, Sophia's parents haven't given in to the home-schooling request, and Sophia and her 15-year-old sister Sabrina attend Menlo School. They head over to the Menlo Circus Club in Atherton, where the Jains keep their horses, five days a week after school and sometimes have to miss classes so they can travel to compete in horse shows.

Last week, though, they didn't have to travel far. The Circus Club hosted the Menlo Charity Horse Show, and Sophia was one of the more than 500 riders competing. It was the show's 45th year.

Riding is a family affair for the Jains, at least the female side. Suzanne Jain heads the Circus Club's equestrian committee and had been co-chair of the horse show for the past 10 years. Sister Sabrina, 15, also rides competitively. All three work with trainers Peter Breakwell and Lauren Shepherd of Breakwell Stables.

Dad Raj and brother Derek, 9, don't ride, but Derek plays tennis at the Circus Club.

Suzanne and Sabrina did not compete in the horse show this year to give their horses a break from recent competitions, but both were busy behind the scenes. Sabrina was part of a Junior Committee of 14 volunteers, ages 10 to 17, and Suzanne was on the committee that organizes the show.

Sabrina says she can only remember one year when she and Sofia weren't part of the show, starting out as toddlers in the lead line class propped on the back of a horse. That one year, she says, their father took them to visit their grandmother instead of the show. "We cried because we wanted to come," says Sabrina.

Sofia wants to someday compete professionally, as well as at the Olympics. She's made a good start, this year winning three championships and one reserve championship in jumping events.

Trainer Peter Breakwell, himself a former Olympian, says Sofia has characteristics that could take her far. "They need to be focused on the end goal," he says. "She's really focused on what she's doing."

Early in the show, riding a friend's horse that she had never competed on before, Sofia experienced something she never had before in a competition she was thrown from the horse when it balked at a jump.

She reacted by calmly getting back to her feet, leading the horse from the arena, and re-mounting. Within an hour, Sofia was back in the ring again, this time on the pony, Jean Claude, who she's competed on for the past two years.

She says the fall had taught her to think about "what I could have done so that wouldn't happen." She decided she could have helped the horse judge how much room she needed to make the jump. "I probably could have supported her more," she says.

"You're using your brain a lot when you ride," Sofia says. "If it looks like someone's doing nothing, then they're doing a really good job of riding their horse."

Sofia competed for three more days following her fall, but did not win a ribbon. "This was her toughest show, results-wise, in a long time," says Suzanne Jain. "I was proud of her this week for never getting discouraged and always appreciating how hard the pony tried for her. She cheered on her friends that won and was happy all week."

The Jains compete mostly in hunting and jumping, in which they guide their horses over jumps of varying heights and configurations. Sabrina also competes in equitation, which judges riders on their horsemanship and riding skills.

While Sabrina isn't aiming toward the Olympics as her sister is, she also has a lofty goal of winning the top equitation award. "I'd like to win the Maclay finals," she says. The annual Maclay Horsemanship Champions are sponsored by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Why do they do it? Sofia says she loves horses. "You get to bond with a really different creature," she says. "They're kind of like your best friend."

Do these teenage sisters, then, ever cry on their best friends' shoulders? The girls look a bit perplexed at the question.

"One thing about horses is, they pull us away from a lot of the drama," says Sabrina.

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