The Drive to Ride by candace howze photos by shae allison design by carolyn bahar & kristi walker
Senior Sarah Hounshell jumps her Welsh Cross pony, Moonshine. The best thing about the equestrian team is the â€œsense of bonding not only with the horses but with the people,â€? says Hounshell.
OLIVIA ANDRETTI initially thought leaving for college
would mean the end of horseback riding. “When I was looking at schools, I told myself I was going to stop riding because it’s so expensive and my parents were like, ‘You should just focus on school,’” says the freshman, who plans to major in business. That all changed when Andretti heard about the equestrian team at UNC-Chapel Hill. She signed up at FallFest and is now one of seven new members chosen from the 29 who tried out. The equestrian team is a UNC-CH club sport that competes in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association against other club and varsity teams. At the start of each academic year, the team holds tryouts for new members. “I think that’s what makes this club sport really cool— that because we have tryouts and dues, we kind of expect our members to be on the team the whole entire time, from when they join until they graduate, and that creates a very nice network. I made my best friend on this team,” senior and co-captain Kelly McGuinness says. During tryouts, current members carpool aspiring participants to the stables where they practice and break into groups of four based on their level of experience. The tryout is only about 10 minutes long, but it is an all-day event for the captains and their coach, who assess the riders. “We look at the way they ride, their position, their skill with the horse if they’ve never ridden and personality so everyone will get along,” senior Sarah Hounshell says. “Commitment definitely, if they’re willing to commit to the team.”
For UNC-Chapel Hill’s Equestrian team, riding is more than a sport—it’s a family, a lifestyle and a distinct commitment. During tryouts, prospective members are introduced to college riding’s main element: random horses. “That’s probably the most unique thing about college riding is that you aren’t riding a horse you’re familiar with,” senior co-captain Corey Overcash says. “In traditional riding, you would ride your own horse.” “I was kind of nervous because I’m used to riding horses that I’m really familiar with, so just having to pick a random horse and get on was a little bit scary for me,” Andretti says. “It was a lot of pressure, but it was also really fun because I just like to ride no matter what.” For fellow freshman Sierra Homer, random riding wasn’t new. “I participated in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association in high school, which is the college-style riding for high school, when you get on a random horse,” Homer says. “So I already kind of had that experience, but I was more nervous to watch everyone else go and wonder how I compared. Waiting after tryouts was the most nervewracking.” Although choosing who will make the team is difficult, Overcash says it depends largely on which level riders the team needs most. “It comes down to who we need for our competitions level-wise, and we can’t take everyone because we limit our team,” she says. This year the team has one member who has never ridden a horse before. Most of the members are familiar with competitive riding and say that the sport factored into their decision to come to Carolina.
Members of the UNC Equestrian team line up before a lesson at Southern Saddle Stales in Timberlake, N.C. Kate Johnston (senior) rides Bailey, Jenn Ruff (senior) rides Brownie, Olivia Andretti (freshman) rides J.W., and Allison Keogh (junior) rides Rockstar in their afternoon lesson.
“When I was applying to schools, I knew that the equestrian team was something really important because it had been part of my life from age four through high school,” McGuinness says. “When I came here I already knew I wanted to join.” Other riders had different motives for wanting to join the team. Hounshell’s sister attended Carolina before her and didn’t make the equestrian team her freshman year, so she made it a personal goal to earn a spot. Homer met with McGuinness to see if the team was a good fit when she visited campus last year. “It was nice to come on the team because everyone was so welcoming, so it was like an instant bond,” Homer says. “Especially being out of state too—I knew no one coming on campus, and now I can see someone and even if I don’t know them, I can still wave if they have an equestrian outfit on.” This strong team chemistry has translated to success in the ring. Like the majority of Carolina athletics, the equestrian team continues a legacy of excellence—last year it placed second in its region, which includes N.C. State, Duke and its biggest rival, St. Andrews. “St. Andrews is strictly a riding school and we’re obviously not, so it’s interesting that we’re actually that competitive against them because that’s what they dedicate their days to,” Overcash says. “They ride like three times a week; we ride once a week.” The team participates in seven competitions per academic year that operate similarly to a track or swim meet. Several schools will meet at the hosting school site and use their facilities and horses for the day. Riders draw a slip of paper with the name of their horse and a one-line description varying from whether the horse is slow or fast to something more specific, like not to touch its face. “Then they send you in the ring and you’ve never been on this animal before,” Overcash says. “So it’s kind of the idea that it levels the playing field so no one knows what they’re getting on.” The challenge of this design is that riders can’t control if they get a good or a bad horse. Schools compete in about 25 to 30 classes—events divided by horse, event type, experience, age, etc.—that consist of five or six riders, each representing a different school. The horse shows are categorized into divisions that include walk-trot, walk-trot-canter and different levels of
jumping that depend on height. At the start of the day, teams pick a point rider to represent them for each division. Each point rider earns points based on what place he or she earns in the class, which then get accumulated to team points. Every team can drop one score from the total. “You want an overall strong team because even if you’re not a point rider, you could still be in the same class as another team’s point rider, so if you get a first place and you beat the other team’s point rider, you’re preventing them from getting a higher score,” Hounshell says. “What’s nice about how the equestrian team works is it doesn’t matter if you jump the highest jump or have been riding your whole life. Your points are the same, so every member of the team is equal in earning points for our team,” McGuinness says. Courtney Blackwell, the team’s coach, goes to shows with them and provides horses for the team. She is an independent trainer hired by the team to provide assistance and stables for the year. She rode for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and coached its team after she graduated, so she’s experienced with the format. “She’s very supportive of the team and very good about explaining what we need to work on and why we placed a certain way in a certain class,” Hounshell says. “She also knows what to expect from the judge—she’ll watch the judges all day and say what kind of ride a judge prefers.” “It’s hard finding a barn that will support the number of riders with the different levels and horses we have, so we’re very lucky we have Courtney,” Overcash says. To pay for the barn rental, the team holds fundraising events such as recycling and bag checking at football games. Members also pay $400 of dues per semester, which members say is very economical considering the fee to compete in one show individually is around $1,000. The team also holds various social events throughout the year, including an end-of-the-year formal, making it “a highly competitive sports team but also a lot of fun,” McGuinness says. “I think what’s unique is that it’s really hard to be on the equestrian team,” Overcash says. “All the other teams get to practice here, but we go to a barn 45 minutes away. We go out of our way to do what we love to do, and it speaks volumes to who we are and our commitment to riding and one another.”