Georgia Ralston is no stranger to horse shows. She has been showing in county shows, Academy shows and 4-H shows since she was only 3, when her aunt plopped her into the saddle for lead-line competitions.
"My dad was a big cattle farmer and he didn't like horses. They don't make money," said the teenager, laughing. "My aunt really pushed it."
Her aunt, the late Carlene Isley, also pushed the 4-H horse program, something that Georgia has never regretted. For the last two years, she has been the state 4-H high points champ in the walking horse division and last year went on to win the Southern Regional reserve championship.
This year's 4-H State Championship begins Monday at Calsonic Arena and lasts all week. It's a week Georgia is excited about -- and is also dreading.
"I'm looking forward to seeing all my friends," she said. "But it's saddening, because this is my last year."
Newly graduated from Community High School, Georgia will have "aged out" of the program by the time she heads off to the University of Tennessee in the fall. She'll have left high school and 4-H with far more than a wall full of ribbons to show for it.
"4-H isn't all about shows," said Georgia. "It's about learning your horse and how to take care of it."
She studied conformation, judging, health and care, nutrition -- just about every aspect of horsemanship there is.
"It's about the whole package of horse ownership and I appreciate that," said Georgia.
Everything she's learned, she's already been able to put to use. The horse she's been winning all those ribbons on, Stormy, didn't exactly show up on her doorstep ready to ride, a "push-button" horse that goes the same for every rider.
"She was real nervous," said Georgia. "She didn't like to load in a trailer, she didn't like to be cross-tied."
Georgia and her riding instructor, Faye Lynne Coffey, took the mare from padded performance to country pleasure, and turned an edgy washout into a 4-H champion. Knowing it was her own hard work, experience and 4-H experience that helped the mare turn around made it much better for Georgia.
"It was much more satisfying than just showing up and sitting on a horse somebody else trained," she said.
Members of 4-H from all across Tennessee will be in Shelbyville this week for the state finals, and all of them will be eager to show what the program has taught them, from reining and roping to equitation and nutrition. The students will be taking tests, giving speeches and demonstrating that they know more about horses than how to ride them across the ring.
Like Georgia, they will have discovered horsemanship through their 4-H projects, but they will also have discovered themselves, how to speak in public, how to defend their choices, and how to think for themselves.
Georgia Ralston will be one of them, for one last time, but she'll leave the ring with far more than memories. She will leave with a foundation of quiet confidence that 4-H helped build.