In the Spotlight

From 4-H member to 4-H extension agent, Novice amateur Leona Parr shows that things in life have a habit of coming full circle.

By Tara Christiansen
The American Quarter Horse Journal
May 6, 2013

Leona Parr and CU Choice Sensation, photo courtesy of Leona Parr

Leona poses with CU Choice Sensation, the mare who helped Leona finish fifth overall in the 2012 All American Quarter Horse Congress Queen race. (Photo courtesy of Leona Parr)

Everything in life comes full circle. Or so they say.  

Leona Parr, 23, grew up on a dairy farm in Newberry, South Carolina. Leona’s spark for horses was lit at a young age since the Parrs had horses around the farm. Unfortunately, the dairy industry went downhill in South Carolina, forcing the Parrs to disband their bovine and equine herds. Just a few years later, though, horses were back in Leona’s life.  

“I was about 9 years old when I went to a birthday party with a friend and they had pony rides,” Leona told the Journal. “I was just totally smitten all over again. I begged my dad for a pony; begged and begged and begged.

“And he finally said, ‘Fine, I’ll get you a pony.’ ”

Thirteen years later, Leona still has that pony, although she graduated to full-size horses many moons ago.

Without a trainer to offer guidance, 10-year-old Leona saddled up, navigating her own way through the waters of horsemanship.

“I really had no business having a horse. I had no idea what I was doing,” Leona recalls with a laugh. “I just kind of yee-hawed around: I fell off and learned what to do on my own.

“Finally, when I hit middle school, my friend was taking lessons at an eventing barn, so I would go every now and then and take lessons there.”

Soon the young horsewoman joined a 4-H club and found herself competing in the hunter ring.

“My 4-H club was one of the largest in South Carolina, so I had a lot of opportunities to go to different farms and go out of state and see some really cool stuff,” Leona says. “I did horse judging and hippology and horse bowl.”

Although Leona rode and competed on several horses throughout her childhood, in high school she bought a Quarter Horse, Speculator Cierra. The 1994 gray gelding taught Leona quite a bit, but more than anything, he opened her eyes to the Quarter Horse’s versatility.

“To me, it was a lot more versatile,” Leona says of all-around events in comparison to showing hunters. “There was showmanship, horsemanship, pleasure, trail – and I just fell in love with all of it.”

Following high school graduation, Leona started at Clemson University. A fourth-generation Clemson grad, Leona says she really chose the school for its Interscholastic Horse Show Association equestrian team. But when Leona started college, Clemson didn’t offer a western team, only hunter seat. That didn’t stop Leona.

For a year and a half, Leona rode on the Clemson hunter seat squad. After a while, Leona got to wondering what it would take to add a western team. The first time she asked, Leona was told there were no funds for such an addition. So she went on with her life.

While in pursuit of an equine business degree, Leona spent a good deal of time at the Clemson Equine Center. She assisted in teaching a class at the equine center; the class was called Little North American, where students manage their own version of the North American Livestock Show. During her time at the equine center, Leona became good friends with Rebecca Shirley, the center’s manager.

“She was big time into the Quarter Horses,” Leona says of Rebecca. “She had a western pleasure mare that I absolutely loved. We would go over to the local Quarter Horse shows together and just watch. I was fascinated by it all.”

Leona was struck by one thought every time she attended one of those weekend AQHA shows: “I would love to get into this industry.”

If there was ever a time to try for a Clemson western team ever again, the fall of Leona’s senior year was the right time. And at Leona’s request, Rebecca was willing to coach the western squad.

“I approached the team again and asked them, ‘Would you guys be willing to do this? I have a facility and a coach,’ ” Leona recalls. “They said, ‘That’s all you need, so, yeah, of course. You can be the captain and the leader of this.’ ”

Leona started her senior year in the fall of 2011, giving her a short window to get the team up and running before graduation. Leona did indeed make an impact in that short time. In fact, Clemson’s Rebekah Strunk vied for the coveted AQHA Cup, a western award at the 2013 IHSA National Championships May 2-5 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

To help get the western team up and running, Leona invited a clinician in to give lessons. She contacted Courtney Sturgill, who was the All American Quarter Horse Congress Queen at the time. Leona hoped the Virginia horsewoman would have a clinician in mind. As it would happen, Courtney offered to volunteer her own time to teach the clinic.

Through the planning and execution of the clinic, Leona got to know Courtney quite well. Seeing potential in Leona, Courtney encouraged the Clemson cowgirl to take a run at the Congress Queen title.

First, Leona needed to qualify to represent South Carolina at the contest in Columbus, Ohio. After winning the South Carolina contest in April 2012, Leona spent the rest of the summer preparing for the real deal in October.

For her mount, Leona leased Rebecca Shirley’s mare, CU Choice Sensation.

“I began riding her all summer,” Leona says. “She was only a pleasure horse and I put horsemanship on her. Then we went and showed at the Congress. That was awesome.”

Finishing third in the test portion of the queen’s contest, 10th in interview and 11th in horsemanship, Leona placed fifth overall in the race for the 2012 All American Quarter Horse Congress Queen title.  

Before her run for the Congress Queen crown, Leona had been to the world’s largest single-breed horse once before with the Clemson horse judging team, which she competed with for a year. Thanks to the horse judging team, Leona also had a chance to attend the AQHA World Championship Show several years ago.

Naturally, Leona was a tad bit star struck by the awesome equine athletes she watched compete in Oklahoma City.

“ ‘I cannot believe I’m standing here, watching western riding going on and there’s Harley D Zip out in the ring. Holy cow, he’s right there!’ ” Leona remembers thinking. “I was in heaven. Those were the horses I read about. It was an once-in-a-lifetime, I’ll-never-get-it-back experience.”

Leona does have plans to go back to the World Show one day. To get there, she is setting goals, like earning an AQHA Register of Merit and qualifying for the AQHA Novice championship shows. Before tackling those goals, though, Leona needed a way to fund her hobby and passion.

“I really want a job that will support me showing more, because I love everything that the Quarter Horse is,” Leona said when she was still in the hunt for a career. In the meantime, Leona was hired as the Lexington and Richland Co. 4-H extension agent in South Carolina.

Like they say, things in life have a habit of coming full circle: The 4-H youngster is grown, giving back to the organization that gave her so much.

Now Leona is aiming for another full circle trip. But this time when Leona is in Oklahoma City, she’ll be the one in the saddle.

The American Quarter Horse Journal loves to feature the hard-working AQHA exhibitor, and In the Spotlight is the Journal’s fun new way to do so. Do you know a hard-working AQHA competitor who deserves some time in the limelight? Email AQHA Internet Editor Tara Christiansen at tchristiansen@aqha.org to submit story ideas, then visit www.aqha.com/inthespotlight to view more In the Spotlight stories.