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Franklin Regional grad in national horse-training competition

| Wednesday, July 2, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Murrysville Star
Nicole Valeri is competing in the upcoming Ultimate X Showdown. A Franklin Regional graduate, she is a horse trainer and is working with 'Rings,' a former racetrack horse, as part of the competition.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Murrysville Star
Nicole Valeri is competing in the upcoming Ultimate X Showdown. A Franklin Regional graduate, Nicole is a horse trainer and is working with 'Rings', a former racetrack horse, as part of the competition.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Murrysville Star
Nicole Valeri is competing in the upcoming Ultimate X Showdown. A Franklin Regional graduate, Nicole is a horse trainer and is working with 'Rings', a former racetrack horse, as part of the competition.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Murrysville Star
Nicole Valeri is competing in the upcoming Ultimate X Showdown. A Franklin Regional graduate, Nicole is a horse trainer and is working with 'Rings', a former racetrack horse, as part of the competition.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Murrysville Star
Nicole Valeri is competing in the upcoming Ultimate X Showdown. A Franklin Regional graduate, Nicole is a horse trainer and is working with 'Rings', a former racetrack horse, as part of the competition.

Nicole Valeri never wanted to play with dolls as a child. Toy horses, though, were a different story.

Now, two years after graduating from Franklin Regional High School, Valeri, 20, does more than play with horses — she trains them at the Plum stable she manages.

“I've been training and riding all of my life,” said Valeri, who specializes in barrel racing. “I have a need for speed. I'm an adrenaline junkie.”

For the next 100 days, Valeri's skills will be put to the test on a national stage. She is one of 15 horse trainers from across the country to compete in the Ultimate X Showdown, a competition that tests horse-training skills.

Trainers have 100 days to work with an off-track thoroughbred horse that has been retired from racing to teach it how to compete in barrel racing. Each pair also develops a freestyle routine set to music to showcase other skills the horse has learned.

Trainers from 21 states and Canada applied to compete in the event, hosted by McCandless-based nonprofit group Dreaming of Three. Its mission is to increase the second-life marketability of thoroughbred horses, said Jacqueline Harris, founder of Dreaming of Three.

“They're taking a horse that might not have a good chance after the track — a lot of these horses end up in slaughter pens — and teach them something new,” Harris said. “Not too many people know that they are very versatile animals that you can make into anything you want.”

This isn't Valeri's first attempt at the rodeo. Last year, she tried out for the inaugural competition, but wasn't chosen. She was “heartbroken” but kept working at her craft.

That impressed the judges, Harris said.

These days, Valeri spends much of her days at Pinnacle Stables working with Rings, the 5-year-old thoroughbred she rescued from retirement at Mountaineer Racetrack. Rings had won about $40,000 in 28 races during his time as a racehorse, but he wasn't profitable anymore, Valeri said.

“He has a lively personality and really won me over,” she said. “It hasn't been easy, though.”

Thoroughbreds are trained to do one thing — run as fast as they can when they hear a loud noise. When Valeri got Rings, he ran to the left, rather than straight or right. Every exercise, every activity Rings receives training on has to be done on both sides.

Thoroughbreds also are somewhat temperamental — an animal constantly in its terrible twos, her family said. Rings has become stable royalty, Valeri said. Her family calls him “King Rings,” and she admits he gets whatever feed he wants.

“He's very spoiled,” Valeri said while riding Rings around a practice arena at the stables. “He's not what I was expecting. He's not high-strung at all, and it's changed my thoughts on the breed.”

The competition comes to a close Sept. 5 in Negley, Ohio. Valeri and Rings will have two barrel race runs, where the horse circles three barrels in a cloverleaf set-up. The pair also will perform a five-minute freestyle routine that will be scored by a three-judge panel.

But for the next two months, the pair will practice, practice, practice.

“I want to give him a good quality of life while he's with me,” Valeri said. “We're a bit of underdogs, but we'll see what happens.”

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer at Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-871-2365 or dkurutz@tribweb.com.

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