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Local Girl Qualifies For Horse Reining Finals
11-14 OAK Yohey1
A sudden stop from Oakdale-trained Courtney Yohey and her horse Cheese is the highlight of this horse reining show in Rancho Murieta. - photo by COURTESY OF JOHN O'HARA

Sometimes a name just sticks.

The nine-year-old quarter horse dubbed Imasmartlittlecheese (all one word) knows that all too well, but he’s not complaining.

The quick and nimble mount is about as obedient and responsive to a rider’s command as a horse can be. With Oakdale-trained Courtney Yohey gracefully holding the reins, Imasmartlittlecheese has carried the pair to the pinnacle of horse reining.

“I call him ‘Cheese’ for short,” Yohey said with a laugh on Monday. “We got him in 2007 and he came with the name. At first I didn’t like it because it sounded a little weird, but now we can’t imagine calling him anything else.”

Yohey and Cheese dominated the field at the Northwest National Reining Horse Association Affiliate Finals in October to claim the 13-and-under championship and qualify for three different classes of competition at the NRHA North American Affiliate Championships from Nov. 22 to Dec. 1 in Oklahoma.

The pair were runners-up in the non-pro level 1 division, also qualifying (sixth) for Nationals in the limited open during the Affiliate Finals (held in Rancho Murrieta). The open division will require Yohey to compete with professional horse trainers of all ages.

It’s a preview of things to come for the Modesto resident, Enochs High freshman and six-year pupil of Oakdale horse trainer Mark Harnden.

“I want to do this forever,” Yohey said. “I fell in love with it when I was seven years old and I want to do it professionally.”

As a non-pro, Yohey can still claim money winnings from her event (she’s earned around $1,200 this year), but she can’t compete with sponsors. She has attended 11 NRHA shows this year, with six total championships and top-three finishes in all of them. She was a champion at the prestigious Reining By The Bay event, was the non-pro reserve champion in the Arizona Cactus Classic and landed third in the High Roller Reining Classic.

Unlike most youth riders, Yohey does all the riding and training herself, though the sessions are under the careful guidance of Harnden on his Oakdale ranch. With Harnden’s astute instruction, the horse and rider have come a long way.

“I still watch my old videos and watch how much I have improved and how much my horse has improved,” Yohey said. “I could not do it without my horse trainer. He is awesome.”

Yohey is also a delegate for the NRHA and is running for national office as the historian for 2013. She is in the top-10 in NRHA rankings that include a host of riders from the USA, Canada and Mexico.

It’s a stunning accomplishment for the team and a bit outside the realm of comprehension considering the obstacles presented to both Yohey and her mount. When the two were united in 2007, it wasn’t a probable formula for horse reining success. Cheese was just four years old at the time and hardly the type of veteran ‘finished horse’ typically used for horse reining.

“A lot of the people she worked with in the beginning said it would never work because (Cheese) was too young, and Courtney was too young,” Courtney’s mother Sheree Yohey said. “They told us we needed to sell him, but when we asked Mark he said if you think he is the right horse then go with it.

“They kind of learned together.”

Seven years later, Cheese has proven his worth with an adept knack for quick and fluid reaction to Yohey’s commands as she guides the quarter horse through the 360-degree spins, looping circles and exciting abrupt stops at the peak of dead sprints.

With superb speed and maneuverability, it’s easy to see why the pair has made a name for themselves in the sport, even if that name is a little cheesy.