Riders end year at show in Wisconsin

Than Tibbetts

Most folks would have no difficulty driving a strange car. But it might be different hopping on a strange horse.

That’s exactly what members of the University Equestrian Team do. They ride horses they’re not familiar with, jumping over high fences and running through competitive shows.

Nine members of the club traveled to River Falls, Wis., during the weekend to compete in their final show of the year.

Teams from Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin arrived to test their skills in the hunt riding discipline, a form of horse riding based on English foxhunting.

Riders take on a classic look as well; donning tall boots, hunt coats and dark gloves. They tuck their hair under helmets for the traditional English fox-hunting look while trying to impress the judge with their riding styles.

Equine incognito

Most competitors in any sport use their favorite equipment to be the best. Basketball players love their shoes. Golfers love their clubs.

But in this event, no rider knows which horse he or she will ride.

Determined at random by picking out of a bucket, the rider’s only clue about the horse he or she will ride is a small photo and short description.

Sizing up her selection while sitting on a cold, aluminum bleacher, University student Molly Kubeczko had picked Traveler, a pony who was smaller and less experienced than the one on which she practices.

“It’s tiny, and I guess he’s only been jumping for the last four days,” she said. “It’ll be interesting.”

Teammate Andrea Donoval, an engineering and women’s studies senior, seemed pleased with her draw.

“The description was good, it should be OK,” she said.

In this competition, there’s little time to get comfortable with a new horse. There’s no horse-whispering here. Each rider is only allowed enough time to adjust stirrups before saddling up.

The horses widely vary in size from strong 7-footers to half-pint ponies.

One breed that is conspicuously lacking, however, is the male rider. At the University team’s meeting last week, only two men showed up, compared with 20 women.

“There’s not very many guys here,” Donoval said. “They’re kind of a novelty when they are.”

Rough riders

The team sat in the bleachers as each rider waited his or her turn in the saddle. Their conversations were suddenly interrupted by a chorus of “Oh!” from the stands. They looked up in time to see a rider falling off her horse and slamming into the arena wall.

“That hurts when you hit the wall, I’ll tell you that,” said Michelle Hogler, a first-year economics and global studies student.

Riders take every kind of bump or bruise.

Hogler’s first ride wasn’t as smooth as she hoped, she said. Her horse bumped her up out of the saddle as it jumped over the first fence. She said she lost one of her stirrups during the ride.

“I’ve not had a good jumping experience in these shows,” she said.

However, several riders from other teams fell off their horses during the jumping shows as their horses abruptly halted in front of fences.

One rider was tossed into the fence. Another was tossed over the fence.

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls hosted the event at an indoor campus arena.

When the team traveled in October to an outdoor meet in Lincoln, Neb., the conditions weren’t so favorable.

“It was like horsey hell,” Donoval said. “It was really cold. Everything was blowing around, and the horses were freaking out.”

Kubeczko said it had been windy and 45 degrees at that meet.

“A lot of people fell off that day,” she said.

Saddle success

Donoval finished in first place in her class Saturday, riding a horse named Suzie. The award was the group’s first top prize for the weekend.

A bit of luck factored into her win, she said.

After drawing their horses, Donovan’s class redrew because one horse, Daphne, bucked a rider off during the previous class.

Donoval was slated to ride Daphne.

“I got very lucky,” she said.

Luck also smiled on the University’s next rider, Jaclyn Carlson, a science and agriculture junior.

Carlson redrew horses and picked Suzie, the first-place prize winner. Her luck paid off with another first-place finish.

Hogler, whose wild ride Saturday left her feeling a little uneasy, was back in the bleachers Sunday anticipating her next ride, she said.

“I’m really scared,” she said, looking into the arena to visualize her route on the course.

“I can’t do this,” she said.

“You gotta,” Donoval said.

Despite her worries, Hogler’s ride was clean and successful.

“It was better than before,” she said. “I think I felt more confident.”

Growing the club

Kim Turner, the club’s vice president, said it was founded last year by five “show kids” who missed showing horses while at college.

They faced some struggles finding a faculty sponsor and enough money to help offset the costs of showing at events like the River Falls show, Turner said.

The club has not gone without squabbles in the leadership, either, said Kattie Bear, a biology sophomore.

“It’s just the nature of what happens when you get a bunch of people together who are insanely passionate about what they do,” she said.

Turner, a health and wellness senior, said the club’s biggest problem is finding a farm that will allow the team to practice.

“We do have one lead right now, but our biggest problem is finding someone with enough horses and enough time, and who will offset the cost,” she said.

The University Equestrian Team also fields teams in Western-style riding.

The form of events is basically the same, with a lot of riders riding unfamiliar horses.

“It’s fun, because you never know what kind of horse you’re gonna get,” said first-year student Sara Thomas, one of the club’s Western riders.

“But when you get a bad draw, you get nervous,” said Sarah Sullivan, also a first-year student.

“They tie red ribbons to the tails of horses that kick,” she said. “You don’t want a red ribbon.”