By SCOTT PESZNECKER
Kelsey Markus wasn't so worried about barrel racing or showing the judges that she could control her horse.
When the Murphys resident competed for the title of Calaveras Saddle Queen at last week's Calaveras County Fair, her biggest obstacle was her age.
Or so she thought.
"In my heart, I really wanted to beat them all," said 14-year-old Markus, who competed against seven other girls up to 18 years old. "But once I saw that they knew I was a good rider and that I was competition for them, I was like, 'Oh, OK, I don't have to try so hard.' "
The fiery 14-year-old wasn't crowned Saddle Queen or even a runner-up.
But Markus said that so far, the contest was the best thing she's ever done on horseback.
And for someone who didn't ride regularly until she was 9, Markus has done quite a lot.
She was 5 when she started riding ponies at fairs and carnivals. A year later, she started taking horseback riding lessons, but that was short-lived.
"I was kind of afraid of them at first because they were so much bigger than me," said Markus, who now stands at 5 feet, 3 inches tall and is still small next to her horses.
When she turned 9, though, Markus pulled out of her gymnastics classes to get back in the saddle. A friend let Markus take care of and ride one of her older horses. The following Christmas, Markus' parents helped her buy a horse of her own.
Since then, she has won horsemanship competitions at two Calaveras County fairs and at other horse shows. She is also part of the California Gymkhana Association, which specializes in barrel racing and obstacle courses.
She is competing this weekend in Clements at a gymkhana contest called the Northern Classic. She'll face competitors from Calaveras, Tuolumne, Amador and Sacramento counties.
"I am very competitive," Markus said. "If you can make something into a contest, I will try and win it."