SANTA CLARITA ( — In a sport that is quickly gaining scholastic popularity, a local junior high competitor showed that underdogs still triumph on the field, on the court — and now, in the equestrian arena.

Defeating over 50 teams of both high school and junior high equestrian competitors, rider Olivia Manasse of Rio Norte Junior High School in Valencia was instrumental, along with her teammates, in leading the Rio Norte Equestrian Team to their first overall championship awards.

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Manasse was told time and again, by a number of experts, that she would never place well in a competitive horse league such as the Interscholastic Equestrian League (IEL) with her pony, Tango, while most competitors were riding warm blood horses.

By the conclusion of the four shows, which consist of 562 riders, 75 trainers and 73 Southern California schools, Manasse earned not only the Overall Champion Freshman High Point School Award, but also the Overall Champion Freshman Jumper Award, and the Overall Reserve Champion Freshman Individual Rider High Point Award.

Her accumulation of points was key in Rio Norte winning their first Overall Champion Freshman High Point School Award.

It was the first time a junior high school from the Santa Clarita Valley took those honors.

Additionally, Manasse earned the Overall Reserve Champion Freshman Individual Rider High Point Trainer Award for her trainer, Kelly White, of Don-E-Brook Farms in Saugus, making White the first trainer to receive an award from the IEL.

“I’m honored to receive the first award for training for IEL,” White said. “I feel very fortunate to be able to do what I love and be rewarded for my efforts.”

Melissa Manasse, Olivia’s mother, says that despite being told that she did not posses the proper tools to compete and succeed, her daughter proved that training, and the right connection with her mount, were worth more than outside expectations.

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“Through her hard work, endless hours of training with Kelly, and her human-like bond with Tango, the two have won many championships,” Manasse said. “Tango has won her awards in western barrel racing, English flat equitation, and English jumpers.”

As far as her daughter’s awards, Manasse says that, while she is delighted, she is more impressed with Olivia’s obvious fun and determination in the face of adversity.

“She and Tango have grown up together, and it’s so beautiful to watch them move as one,” Manasse said. “As her mom, I couldn’t be more proud of her determination to compete. The awards are great, but I love the fact that she never quit, never gave up. She just wanted it and went for it.”

(credit: Tom, Melissa Manasse)

(credit: Tom, Melissa Manasse)

Her trainer, meanwhile, shares Manasse’s sentiments regarding the necessary effort to place well in such a competition, adding that it was her preparation, rather than her tools, that set the foundation for success.

“I’ve trained Olivia for many years, so she has countless hours of training under her belt to get her to the level she is at now,” White shared. “This takes dedication and hard work from trainer and student. I can train students, but if they don’t have the desire to excel, and aren’t willing to put in the work that it takes, then it wont happen. Olivia is very dedicated, and she is an excellent student. It’s a privilege for me to have the opportunity to work with a student that has the same passion and desire to win as I do.”

Manasse’s teammates Morgan Gammon, Jean Lee, Gillian Rideaux and Brayden Arnold also came up huge in an overall team effort that gave an “dark horse” junior high a difficult achievement in a sport that continues to expand throughout Southern California.

Gammon took the award for Overall Champion Freshman Equitation, according to an article by the William S. Hart School District.

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The IEL, which was founded in 1983, holds competitions at the Hansen Dam Equestrian Center in Sylmar.