Liberty Middle School's Olivia Maxey grew up dreaming about riding horses.

Liberty Middle School's Olivia Maxey grew up dreaming about riding horses.

Now, the 12-year-old Powell resident is one of the nation's best riders.

Olivia took first place for her age group in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association's National Finals horsemanship competition in Oklahoma City, held June 28-30.

The contest is a test of a rider's poise and skill atop a show horse.

"It's all about how you and the horse work together," Olivia said. "You have to have perfect posture and you have to look like the horse is easy to ride, even though it may not be."

Top riders are perfectly in tune with their horse's rhythm and can anticipate its movements; in high-level competition, even the smallest misstep can cost you, Olivia said.

IEA competition is especially difficult because riders compete on horses they've never ridden before. They have to draw on all their riding skills and can't fall back on their familiarity with their own horse.

"Every time they show, they are getting a different horse. It takes a rider with a lot of feel, and a lot of bravery, and Olivia has both," said Tammy Rath, Olivia's longtime coach and owner of Bayhill Farm in Powell.

Olivia, who will begin eighth grade this summer, first started riding at age 7 at Bayhill, where she still rides and trains three days a week.

She said she's loved horses since she was little -- and when she got a chance to become a serious rider, the skills came naturally.

Less than a year later, she started competing. She gravitated toward horsemanship, a slow-paced and methodical contest that demands perfection.

Riders must guide their horse through a trot, lope and extended jog, all the while maintaining perfect posture and a cheerful demeanor.

Just the top 12 riders in each age group from across the nation get a chance to compete in the IEA National Finals.

Olivia beat out the competition in four rounds at the local, state and regional levels to earn a spot in the contest.

She also competed in the reining contest at finals as one of the nation's top qualifiers, taking ninth place in a field of 12 competitors.

That contest asks riders to guide their horses through a series of tight maneuvers, spins and stops on a predetermined path.

Olivia said she's a naturally competitive person, but she doesn't lose sight of why she started riding.

"I always try to do my very best, but I also try to have fun," she said.

Later this year, she hopes to compete in the Quarter Horse Congress, a national competition held at the Ohio State Fairgrounds, with her horse Romeo.

After high school, she hopes to land a scholarship with a top equestrian school and continue competing.

But she said wherever she goes, she'll never stop riding.