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No Horsing Around

Erika Gonzalez was just 4 years old when she first rode a horse. By the age of 12, she owned one. Today, she owns two. In the barn, these horses answer to George and Blake, but on competition days, they are known as Copper Dancer and Yes, This is It—names that pay respect to the horses’ thoroughbred racing pedigrees.

During equestrian competition season, which runs late March through the beginning of November in her home state of Maryland, Ms. Gonzalez rides at least five days a week, sometimes six, depending on which horse she’ll ride in any given event. George is her primary horse and generally enters intermediate-level competitions with her; Blake is younger and currently competing at a lower level (that means the fences he jumps are lower and wider). Some years, Ms. Gonzalez travels south for the winter, training in an equestrian community like Aiken, S.C., or Ocala, Fla.

“The horses love going south because it’s warmer for them,” said Ms. Gonzalez, a member of Goshen Mills DAR Chapter, Gaithersburg, Md. “It also gives me a head start on the season, which I sometimes need depending on what my goals are for that year.”

In 2014, Ms. Gonzalez (and George) won second place in the amateur division at an international equestrian event in Lexington, Va. She qualified for the event by placing in five previous ones and was there as a representative of the United States.

“Competing for the United States was an amazing and rewarding experience,” she said. “Not only to recognize all the hard work it took us to get there, but also to compete against amateur riders and professionals alike from several different countries. Qualifying was a win in itself, but coming in second place made it even sweeter.”

She’s in the amateur division because she’s not an equestrian by trade. Ms. Gonzalez balances her passion for riding with a full-time job as an environmental scientist. Previously, she worked in petroleum remediation, helping return contaminated sites back to or close to what they were before a spill occurred. In March, she started a new job helping construction sites comply with state environmental regulations.

For the past 10 years, Ms. Gonzalez has served as a volunteer coach and mentor for young equestrians through the United States Pony Club. In addition, she rescues retired racehorses and retrains them for equestrian competition. Blake is her second rescue from the Charles Town Races in Charleston, W.Va.

“You basically have to start from scratch and teach them how to be a horse again,” she said. “There are many people in the equestrian world who think that they can’t place in an event unless they get a horse from Europe, but they lose sight of the natural talent we have here in this country. These former racehorses are extremely athletic and have great brains. All they need is a little time.”

Admiration of American racehorses comes naturally to Ms. Gonzalez, who has pride for both her Revolutionary War and Hispanic heritages. In high school, she was selected to participate in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute for young Hispanic leaders; today, she serves as Corresponding Secretary for her DAR chapter.

“It adds diversity to my experience as an American,” said Ms. Gonzalez, whose father permanently immigrated to the United States from Chile when he was 21.

“Having a Patriot in my family grounds me here and helps me see how important it is to support the work our Founding Fathers did in making this such a great country. At the same time, my Hispanic heritage helps me connect to more people and understand why so many people want to be a part of this American dream.”

Ms. Gonzalez spends most of her free time in the barn with her horses. She does leave some of it for her fiancé, Adam, whom she’ll marry in September.