October 9, 2013

Local equestrians changing face of sport

Adam Troxtell
The Express-Star


Horseback riding is normally reserved for the financial and social elite, for those who can afford thousands of dollars for a horse, boarding, lessons, and travel expenses.

But the group of kids training out at LNJ Ranch Tuesday evening, about halfway between Duncan and Lawton, don't really fit into that mold. Yet, there they sit, trotting, cantering, and jumping as a team two nights a week with hopes of competing against the best riders in the nation. Thanks to the newly formed chapter of the Interscholastic Equestrian Association -- the first such organization in the state -- the riders are jumping over physical barriers along with social ones.

“It gives me the opportunity to ride with others who like equestrian sport around the nation,” Kaitlyn Verser, a sophomore at Chickasha High School, said. 

Tuesday night was the group's first training session together, with members of the high school and middle school teams present. Ranch owner Laura Armstrong is the team coach, or trainer, as they head toward their first team competition on Nov. 16 in Arkansas.

“Not everybody has the luxury of a million dollar horse," Armstrong said. "You don’t have to be a millionaire to do it.”

All it takes to be part of an IEA team is a $175 team fee, $45 per rider fee, and the time and money to attend training sessions and competitions, which can still run in the thousands. Still, IEAs eliminate the biggest expense: the horse.

When the students compete, they draw from a group of provided horses that are classified for the riders' skill level. There is no need for students or their families to cart their own horse around the region; however, this does require riders to get to know their horse in a matter of minutes before heading out into the arena.

“You have to think about every movement and your movements have to be subtle,” Verser said. "You have adjust every part of your body and see what they like and what they don’t like.”

And even the best of riders face some dangers that come with equestrian competition. For example, Verser, who has been riding since she was seven, was thrown forward from the horse she was on Tuesday when it suddenly decided it didn't want to jump the oncoming fence. Somewhat shaken, there was no question about what she had to do next: just get right back on.

"You have to block everything out and just say ‘I’m going to make it over to the other side,'" Verser said. "It’s difficult because you have to overcome your body’s natural instinct to lean forward or do things to make the horse hold back.”

Like most sports, it is a mental and physical game. Verser's mother, Karen, who works as a nurse, says the natural worry has worn off as she watches her daughter compete.

“Anymore, it just comes with the territory," Karen said. "It’s just like any other sport.”

And just like any other sport, Kaitlyn and her teammates must watch what they eat, exercise outside of riding to better stay in shape, and, of course, train almost daily.

 For now the local chapter is concentrating its efforts toward numbers. Six riders are currently part of the team; three in middle school, including Armstrong's son, Wyatt, and three in high school, which puts them at the minimum operating capacity.

“We have to have three riders for each team. If a rider gets sick, we can’t compete.”

One thing that hinders getting the word out is finding riders via word of mouth in a region where horse riding and competing in shows is still very much for the individual. Team riding is more common on the coasts, Armstrong said.

Another issue, Armstrong says, is that many kids in Oklahoma have parents who do not want to see them ride English saddle. They prefer the western style, which has the horn at the front which, among other things, adds an element of safety.

“The thing is, if you can ride this, you can ride anything,” she said. “You have to have good balance to ride English, and that translates to riding the western saddle.”

To try and attract more riders nation wide, the IEA helps members in their goals for higher education. Scholarships are widely publicized, and there's also the college equestrian recruiters that attend shows and might see someone like Verser as a top future prospect for her ability to adjust to multiple horses.

“With IEA, because they don’t know the horse, it’s only based on their ability to ride, or horsemanship," Armstrong said. "American horsemanship is hard to find, because you have a lot of these kids who’s parents buy them this million dollar horse they just plop them on to ride. That’s one of IEA’s goals, is to teach horsemanship, and there are sportsmanship awards, as well.”