Here’s why the Wofford College IHSA Equestrian Team is one of the best things to happen to me since… well, Wofford.
I’ve been riding for nine years now, and I can’t begin to measure how great the benefits of riding have been for me. Equestrian team, however, has been a particularly special moment in my equine career. Here are a “few” reasons why I would’ve joined the team even if I’d been forced to eat lots more ramen to do so:
I can ride [just about] anything. When I began pursuing instructor certification through PATH Int’l as a freshman, I knew that I would have to attend a certification and ride a test on an unfamiliar horse. I had ridden very few horses since moving to South Carolina and I knew my riding style needed to be reinvented from Saddleseat position, which is WAY different than most riding seats (another story, another day…).
While the amazing Jaime Robertson at HALTER helped me make the first changes to my riding throughout my internship, I knew I needed to ride more than our eight plodding ponies in order to successfully ride any horse.
Enter Bennett and Abby. Both are accomplished equestrians and were both highly disappointed that Wofford did not have an equestrian team, so as sophomores, they started one. To say I helped is a huge overstatement. I didn’t, really, but as one of the sophomores I did what I could from my end to make the team as successful as possible.
I rode So. Many. Horses in our first season alone, from lesson horses to mounts I drew at shows. My teammates who compete over fences rode double that amount throughout the season, and I watched every class. I got to observe what I was learning (having a “big R” judge as your coach makes for some first-rate ringside commentary, for sure!). I saw what worked and what didn’t, good and bad draws, horses and riders that floated along perfectly together and… other pairings. I learned so much from the horses I rode, and I learned almost just as much watching my teammate’s rides and walking their courses with them.
I learned how to do something hard with a team. Our team is just over 10 people on its best day, with injuries or financial breaks at any given time, but we compete against much bigger schools with success, and we have gained the support of the Wofford community and administration over time – we have proven to be more than just an attempt at a team. It was a struggle to get the school behind us – and it still is! But we have done tremendously with the support we’ve been given.
Throughout our six-month season we grew in number, placed well in our region, and worked through crazy logistics as a team. We scheduled our lessons and riding groups, organized carpools to lessons and shows, pitched in to bring food to shows, shared equipment and helped each other with show prep, frantic moments and bad rides. We offered advice and took pictures and videos for each other so we could be better next time.
We learned what it takes to get two carloads on the road at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday. We ate gallons of ice cream straight from the container with a dozen spoons in our hotel rooms, shared beds, jackets, and occasional shoulders during car rides. We worked hard, shivered and sweated together from September to February. We are a team.
I learned to work for it – and trust that God would provide what I couldn’t. I joined the team knowing that $50/week for lessons was $30 more than I was currently earning, and that I would have to pay big bucks for the equipment I didn’t have for horse shows (everything was different than my existing gear!). I knew that this was my “last chance” to compete, and that the competition could only help my experience as a rider and instructor. My parents helped with some of the startup costs, and I spent money I shouldn’t have in order to pay for lessons. There was much prayer. After just two lessons we went to our first horse show. Even though I was riding on the flat, each lesson was a leap of faith.
I’ve been blessed by others. Since I joined the team, I’ve been given two pairs of tall dress boots (the most recent pair far too expensive for me to buy myself!), a jumping saddle to ride in with my horse so that I can work on my position, a pair of half chaps for schooling, a coat to borrow for shows, boot pulls, etc. So many people have asked how they can help the team as a whole but also me as a rider, and one special mentor in particular once said, “… Because you need to ride!”
Every time I think I can’t pay for a lesson, God provides. Sometimes He provides after the fact, but I have learned to trust, and this makes the unexpected support from others that much more sweeter. I’ve been moved to tears and certainly moved to thank God again and again for bringing me to this team.
I learned to embrace failure – even the embarrassing kind. Flush, the horse I drew at my first IHSA horse show, “flushed my dreams down the toilet.” He was quite uncomfortable with the show and tried to make himself invisible as we struggled to trot at eight miles-per-hour around the ring – we were going more like six. My cues were going nowhere.
This should have been a red flag… unconfident, introverted horses (like any horse you would describe as “gentle, calm, or sweet”) shrink deeper into themselves under pressure before they can’t take it anymore.
But I was totally caught off guard when Flush exploded in center ring, bucking for a solid four (… seven?) seconds and then halting next to a jump. My only thought when he erupted: I JUST bought this helmet five days ago and I am NOT spending that much money replacing this thing, you jerk! Don’t you DARE buck me off!
When we stopped, I chuckled to myself because I had stayed on… and then I realized I was sitting on the horse’s neck.
I laughed at myself again, then shimmied awkwardly back into the saddle and rejoined the class. Our second direction was lovely and my face was a lovely shade of red to match. No ribbon, but no medical care needed – so began my hunt seat career.
Since then, I’ve learned to chuckle at an awkward transition or an ugly lead change. This doesn’t mean I don’t take mistakes or hiccups seriously – I am always aiming at perfection and accepting whatever my best may be that day.
Mistakes are for giggling (because we just can’t be perfect) and for learning. If you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning anything and you’re not riding.
By the end of our season, I had been in the ribbons only twice. But I learned more than I can list. While I’m aiming high this year, I’m unafraid of bad results, and this mindset has helped me as a rider tremendously.
Ribbons don’t matter much to me, but the success of the team makes me beam. At our final show of the season, Wofford was fourth overall (and Grace was High Point Rider!) against teams like the College of Charleston, the University of South Carolina, Clemson University, Furman University, Converse College, Lander University, and many others.
Some of these teams are NCAA D1 teams with more expensive gear than we will ever be able to afford, but we can definitely ride with them! We are hoping to grow in size this fall and I cannot wait to see how our second season goes.
I’ve grown as a rider. Midway through the season I started jumping, and after just my 12th jumping lesson I competed in an open show and won champion over two-foot fences. I have ridden all kinds of horses in the past season. Hopefully, I’ll do well and qualify for the novice jumping class by March – I’ll need at least five decent, early ribbons in order to compete over fences by the end of the season. If I succeed, this means I’ll also qualify for regionals. As a rider that never competed seriously growing up, this is a weird concept. But I’m chasing that goal like I stole the horse I’m riding.
I’ve learned that this is only a glimpse of what I will learn and achieve. In just one season, I have learned to compete with poise even when things went horribly wrong. I have learned to instantly recognize the kind of horse I’m riding, and how I need to behave (lightly, enthusiastically, strongly?) in order for the horse to perform at its best. I have learned to calm my nerves – to block out any what-if scenarios and ride like I know I’ve already won. Each time I enter the ring, from the first instructions of the loudspeaker to the final line up, I’m in heaven. I fly.
I’ve learned to work with all kinds of people – teammates, coaches, and competitors – and I have learned to find a way to pay for my passion. I am now paid to teach where I once interned as a therapeutic riding instructor, I work three other jobs, and I try my best not to spend money on anything besides horses, as necessity allows. I’m riding as many horses as I can for as long as I can, while I still can.
The reason I wrote 1700 words on purpose: to all my fellow Terriers out there who might be tempted to try our team but feel like you don’t belong: You do! We want you to join us, and I guarantee that you’ll be surprised at what you learn. My list is different than everybody else’s – come find yours!
For more information about joining the team, message us on Facebook or contact Abby Umberger at firstname.lastname@example.org