VALPARAISO — Gemma Epperson, 9, fell in love with horseback riding when she was 1 1/2 years old.
That's when her grandmother, Mendy Norman, first put her granddaughter on her horse.
"I put her on my horse. It's my fault," Norman joked.
It was Norman's horse, Mercy, that Epperson was riding at the Porter County Fair on Tuesday when she won grand champion in English class showmanship.
The category is open for third and fourth graders or beginning riders, said Paula Smith, 4-H Horse & Pony Show superintendent.
"I've always loved horses," Epperson said.
Her excitement was extra special because Epperson's friend, Brooklyn Hartwig, 9, earned a reserve grand champion ribbon while riding her horse, Bullet.
"The girls are best friends and ride together out of the same barn," friend Makenzie Ross said.
Janet Hartwig, mom of Brooklyn Hartwig, said she was very happy with her daughter's showing since she usually rides Western style and in rodeos and not English style.
"She worked with him (her horse) every single day," Hartwig said.
Just two weeks ago the Hartwigs, who operate Fast Lane Farms in Valparaiso, were at National Little Britches Rodeo finals in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
"Brooklyn went from rodeo to show mode. I'm extremely excited right now for her to come out and do it. It's a very big challenge," Janet Hartwig said.
Brooklyn Hartwig has also loved horses for a very long time, her mom said.
"I was pregnant with her and riding and as a young child, probably around 2, I would set her up on my horse in front of me," Janet Hartwig said.
Gemma Epperson had her own hurdles to jump over prior to competition this year at the Porter County Fair, Norman said.
Pearl, the horse Gemma Epperson had ridden, had some lung-related issues, so she had to switch to Mercy for the Porter County Fair.
Mom Vanessa Epperson said she also was thrilled for her daughter's grand champion win.
"She's put in a lot of time," Vanessa Epperson said.
Last year, in the same competition, Gemma Epperson, got a ninth place.
"She had to work her way up from ninth to grand champion. We are really proud of her," Vanessa Epperson said.
Smith said the showmanship category is just what it sounds like.
"Showmanship is just showing your horse in hand or dancing to the judge," Smith said.
Smith said she has served as horse and pony show superintendent for more years than she can count.
"I am seeing second generation girls. Girls I saw compete who now have had daughters who compete," Smith said.
Valparaiso couple Kenneth King and Christina Sickles missed the English class showmanship competition but were walking through the nearby stables to look at the horses and ponies being groomed for future competition.
The couple had in tow their three children, Keyon King, 10 months; Kevin King, 1 1/2, and Karmella King, 2 1/2, all tucked inside a giant size stroller.
Both said they come to the county fair mostly to see the animals.
Kenneth King said he grew up on a farm and wants his children to be able to see farm animals up close and not just on TV or on a computer screen.
"It's definitely different to look at them here at the fair versus on a screen," King said.