By Britney Grover
Portraits by Meagan Gumpert
When Sofia Roberts first saw a horse and rider jump, she knew that was what she wanted to do with her life. Now 16 with a collection of ribbons from top shows around the country, that hasn’t changed.
Talking to Sofia and those who know her, it’s clear a few other things haven’t changed, either. Sofia’s kindness and her deep love for all animals have shined bright since before she ever sat in an English saddle.
“When she was little, she’d have picnics with her grandmother and her ponies would eat her cookies,” said Sofia’s mother, Jennie. “All her life she’s just loved animals.”
Sofia’s big heart for animals was inherited from her parents. Between their farm in Wilmington, Ohio, and their home in Ocala, Florida, the Roberts family have adopted a veritable menagerie of animals in need, from dogs and horses to parrots, skunks and giant tortoises.
Just like when she was 4 years old and giving her cookies to her ponies instead of eating them herself, Sofia puts others first, whether it’s her horse in the ring or a child who needs help tacking up a pony.
“She’s super determined and driven, and on the flip side very compassionate,” said Patty Rogers, who has been Sofia’s trainer since she was 7 years old. “She loves those animals.”
Patty went on to describe one year at Pony Finals, when Sofia was poised to win the high-pressure, high-prestige competition on a medium green. But when the pony came up a little sore the first day, they didn’t show — end of story, no pressure from Sofia.
“She’s like that: If the horses aren’t quite right, it’s the horses first,” Patty concluded. “She’s that way with her friends, too. A lot of her friends get to show her horses, and she’s very generous with what she has. She’s as nice and kind a kid, with lots of empathy for the animals: She really is that person. She’s a special kid who wants to give back, and she will. I know she will.”
The Roberts family has been involved with horses from the time Sofia’s father, Roby, was young. They were breeding and showing Quarter Horses when Jennie met Roby, and she began showing with them. Roby and Jennie got out of horses for a little while, but then came Sofia.
Though most girls her age played with baby dolls, Sofia played with animals. She pushed them around in a stroller, dressed them up and had tea parties with them.
Her first vivid memory of horses was receiving Angel, a miniature, from her grandparents for her fourth Easter. “I was going on trail rides and taking our minis down to the woods when I was really little,” Sofia remembered.
When Sofia was almost 7, they started looking for a trail horse for her — not knowing it would change the course of the entire Roberts family’s life. In their search, they came upon Lochmoor Stables and trainers Mindy Darst and Patty Rogers.
Mindy put Sofia on a hunter pony on a lead line, and when they offered her a Western saddle, Sofia didn’t want it. Within 10 minutes, she was posting. Mindy, of course, recognized Sofia as a natural.
When they got back in the truck that day, Sofia said, “That’s what I want to do.” She had seen another girl jumping at the other end of the arena, and that was the end of it.
“She was super determined, even though she was really little,” Patty said. “All she wanted to do was learn how to jump. Her dad brought her almost every day; she came with her pink chaps and got it done. Pretty quick we went to Pony Finals, we got her a pony and she was on her way.”
Though she still does some trail riding in a Western saddle with her Quarter Horses and her Friesian, Sofia has been hooked on jumping since she first saw it. “I think it just fits my personality better, because it’s more fast-paced and more of a challenge,” she said. “I love rollercoasters; I love anything ‘adrenaline.’ That’s what I like, and I think that’s why I like the jumpers so much, too.”
In line with her challenge-loving character — as well as her desire to help others — the tougher rides and “project” horses have made the biggest impact on Sofia. Rock Star, known around the barn as Rocky, was a medium pony who helped shape Sofia’s riding.
“I just clicked with Rocky so well,” she said. “Honestly, he taught me how to ride. He wasn’t the easiest pony in the world, and he wasn’t the fanciest pony in the world, but I am the rider I am today because of that pony.”
Small Gesture, known as Nemo, was Sofia’s first junior hunter, and she still shows him today. He’s been another influential horse — and another who wasn’t made when she got him.
“I got dirty a few times, I’m not going to lie,” Sofia said fondly. “He put me on the ground a few times at the beginning. But again, he taught me how to ride the junior hunters: He taught me how to hold onto a harder jump, he taught me how to figure out the harder lead change, he taught me how to protect the swap — all of his little quirks taught me how to ride other horses that I ride today.”
Etoile Van’t Lambroek, or Star, is Sofia’s first junior jumper. Sofia says Star’s amazing, one of the best horses she’s ever sat on as well as very kind.
“I’ve had horses like that who have been teachers and showed me the ropes,” Sofia said. “But my favorite is to get one when they’re younger and greener, or maybe been in a bad situation, or if somebody’s had a hard time with them, and the sense of accomplishment when you figure it out.
“You might not be able to do it at first,” Sofia continued, “but when you finally figure it out, those are the horses you have the most success on because you’re the one who figured it out, you’re the one who brought them back from a place some people didn’t think they could come back from.”
Anim-all in the Family
Horses aren’t the only animals Sofia has experience bringing back from a place where others have given up. In fact, the Roberts family has taken in countless animals through the years.
Willow is the latest addition to the house full of dogs, a puppy they adopted during WEF this year. The previous year, hound mix Buddy Holly had been abandoned in a ditch with his sisters and found by someone at the show. Willow and Buddy have joined Gypsi, a Newfoundland; Sara, Jennie’s yellow lab and diabetes service dog; Johnny Cash, a spaniel mix; Stella, a Havanese; and Ruthie, a terrier mix, to make seven dogs that all live with the family.
The “problem,” the Roberts family says, is that all three of them love animals. Once, when Sofia was young, she and Roby told Jennie they were going to the nearby swap meet and would be right back. They did come back — with two baby skunks.
“We all really just bring animals home,” Sofia said, sitting on the couch with Jennie — and four dogs. “We just collect them. Half the time, I’ll come home with a cat I found on the side of the road and they just say, ‘Ok, we’ll take it to the vet.’”
Filo, a tortoise over 100 years old, belonged to an elderly man who knew Filo would outlive him. Sofia’s grandmother took Filo in and built a beautiful domed building affectionately known as Turtle World. Turtle World is now home to several tortoises, including a sulcata named Leo who was found on the side of the road, and is complete with visits from a knowledgeable vet.
Sofia’s first bird, a Moluccan cockatoo named Maggie, was in bad shape before Sofia got her. The previous owners didn’t know what to do with such a large, smart, long-living and highly social bird, and Sofia somehow stumbled upon their Craigslist ad giving Maggie away.
Now, Maggie is joined by another cockatoo, two macaws, a sun conure, a crested kakariki and an aviary full of small birds. The animal “family” also includes two leopard geckos, guinea pigs once rescued from a reptile expo, rabbits, ducks, chickens, sheep, goats, miniature cows, donkeys, mules and more.
“We have a lot of fun,” said Patty. “We have miniature cows, miniature horses and donkeys here in Ohio; they’re all fun and we play with them. There are animals everywhere, and the family loves them all.”
Others have also noticed the Roberts family’s strong love and high standard of care for the animals, and have retired their horses with them. Their farm is home to over 200 retired Quarter Horses as well as other retirees such as the junior jumper Sofia leased in 2019, who turned 19 just after the circuit ended.
An Old Soul
Though not all of her pets and horses have been able to join her in Ocala quite yet, Sofia says she absolutely loves the area and has made some good friends. In Wilmington, Sofia continues to train with Patty as well as professional rider Jeff Gogul. In Ocala, she rides every day and trains with Bobby Dryer.
Sofia will continue to show in the junior hunters with Nemo as well as San Marco, Maverick and Small Anecdote, who will also be her equitation horse. She’s excited about her new jumper “project” horse, Oscar, and she’s moving up to the medium junior jumpers with Star and Halibo Van Texelhoff, known as Bo Bo.
“The jumpers come more naturally for me; I actually get less nervous in the jumpers than in the hunters,” Sofia admitted. “Everything’s happening too fast for me to be nervous.”
Though Roby gets a little nervous watching Sofia in the fast-paced jumpers, Jennie loves it. “As brave and determined as Sofia is, she’s also smart,” Jennie said. “She’s not going to put herself or her horse in a situation that’s going to get them hurt. It’s a partnership, and if the horse doesn’t want to do it, she won’t make the horse do it. That’s why I don’t get scared, because she puts the horse first.”
“There’s nothing worse than walking into the ring with a horse that feels like he can’t do it,” Sofia added.
Though she’s always known she wants to go pro, Sofia currently hopes to ride for a college equestrian team after high school. Her other goals include importing young, green horses, reaching grand prix level and teaching kids — which she has a knack for.
“I think she’ll be good at it,” Patty said. “She likes to help me, and she’s very good help. She loves to come to the ring, she’s very observant and she’s very aware of other kids’ feelings.”
It’s little wonder why kids are drawn to Sofia, and those who know her call an old soul. Already wise beyond her years, Sofia will be able to pass on what she’s learning in life and horses.
“I think our sport is all about patience,” she said. “Patience is the biggest quality you can have in riding because you’re working with another living creature that you can’t communicate with using words. Everything is about patience and not getting frustrated.”
“There’s a sense of determination there that is rare,” Patty said. “Sofia may have had a bad day in the ring, but we have a lot of other horses to ride and show. She’s not stomping off and going home; she’s getting back on a horse and wanting to figure it out. I have a feeling she’s that way in life, too: It may not work out at first, but she’s going to figure out a way to make it work.”
Never willing to blame an outcome on the horse, Sofia is working on having patience with herself, too. “You have so much more success when you’re a little bit easier on yourself, which is something I’m still learning — to take a deep breath, regroup, let it go and move on,” she said.
Sofia may be her own biggest critic, but it’s easy for others to see her virtues — virtues the world, equestrian and otherwise, could use more of.
“It’s hard to put into words just how good a person she is,” Patty summarized. “She’s a good person; just a really good person.”
Photos by Meagan Gumpert, www.meagangumpert.com/, unless noted otherwise