When the 30 riders competing in the 15th annual New Albany Classic Invitational Grand Prix and Family Day saddle up this weekend, 17-year-old Gabriela Mershad of New Albany will be among them.
The event, founded by New Albany resident Abigail Wexner in 1998 to raise money to help victims of abuse and domestic violence, will begin at 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 23, on the Wexner estate, 4584 Reynoldsburg-New Albany Road in New Albany.
For Mershad, the event will mark attainment of a key goal.
"When she was in sixth grade, she wrote a paper saying her main goal was to ride in the New Albany Classic Grand Prix before she graduated from high school," said Gabriela's mother, Sara. "I think it's great she achieved her goal."
Mershad was introduced to horses when she was 8 years old and her sister, Sophia, wanted to go to camp to learn about horses.
"It was one week long and then they wanted to take another week, and another week, and then there were lessons," Sara Mershad recalled.
Sophia eventually found other interests, but Gabriela didn't.
The Wellington School senior even decided not to continue soccer or lacrosse after playing those two sports her freshman year.
"I realized this is kind of a year-round, 24-7 thing, and if I really wanted to do it, I would have to focus and give up everything else," she said.
She's been working with trainers Ken and Emily Smith of Ashland Farms in Florida, traveling to Florida part of the year and meeting her trainers in other parts of the country at different events.
It wasn't until this past year, after the horse Mershad had been riding was injured, that she found a horse named Caprilli HSF and the fast track into grand prix competitions.
"It's like you and your horse become one," she said. "(The horse) becomes almost like your other half."
Mershad found Caprilli to be different from any other horse she had ridden.
"Confidence is the key," she said. "It's mostly a mind sport. You have to believe in your horse and have (the horse) believe in you. You can accomplish anything if your horse is willing."
Caprilli seems willing and has competed with Mershad in several grand prix competitions. She finished seventh in her most recent competition, the Hampton Classic. There were 63 competitors and she was one of 30 riders who advanced to the second round.
Still, Mershad said, she's never ridden in front of 18,000 people, which are the kinds of crowds typically attending the New Albany Classic Invitational Grand Prix and Family Day.
She said she hopes to focus on what she loves most about competition.
"It's such a thrill, jumping over big jumps, going fast and bonding with your horse," she said. You have to trust your life with (the horse)."
Mershad will compete against two U.S. Olympians: Beezie Madden, an individual bronze medalist and team silver medalist, and McLain Ward, last year's New Albany Classic champion and team gold medalist.
Her goal is to become an Olympic rider and she is considering attending Southern Methodist University in Texas, where she can study business and ride alongside some of the top riders in the country, many of whom study there.
She said she is committed to riding but doesn't have any interest in making it a business.
"Even if I make it to the Olympics and stuff, it will always be a hobby for me," she said. "I never want to be a trainer or have it be a business, where I have to make money."
Mershad said because her parents, Rick and Sara, have supported her hobby, she wants to be able to give them any prize money she wins to help defray some of the costs.
But, if she would win the New Albany Classic, she said, she would give the $100,000 purse to the Center for Family Safety and Healing, the beneficiary of the event.
"If I would get the award, I would want to donate it back to the charity," she said.