By ERIN TOWNSEND
Freshman Lauren Stevens rides her horse around the show ring. She focuses on the judges noticing that she has kept her torso tall and tight, legs strong and steady, and hands soft on the reigns. Stevens is doing this all on a 1,000 pound majestic animal that she has had only a short amount of time to form a winning relationship with prior to the competition.
“It’s exhilarating to get on a horse you’ve never seen before and be able to bond with it in less than 30 seconds and go out into the ring and bring back a ribbon,” Stevens said.
The UT equestrian club competes in a form of horseback riding called the equitation division, which refers to how a rider controls their horse while looking as proper as possible. The hosting rink is responsible for rounding up about 50 horses that riders are randomly paired with before they head out to the ring.
Senior rider Brina Mahoney said that many times, her fellow classmates confuse equestrian riding with polo or jousting. They also don’t realize that it is not only a sport, but a physical workout as well.
The equestrian team practices at least once a week to focus on strengthening all of their muscles that a competition requires through horseback riding. They also work on the right style techniques and fine details to help them achieve the highest possible judging score.
The rider is responsible for brushing and caring for their horse and tack (saddle, stirrups, etc.) before and after they ride.
Club president Alana Eitman said that the UT Equestrian Club aims to not only compete and win ribbons but to share a sport and the lessons of horsemanship with members that are passionate about horses.
“The club is for anyone interested in having an equine experience or just likes horses. The team is competitive, and we require our team to have had riding lessons prior to trying out,” Eitman said.
If someone is interested that has not had lessons before, UT’s head equestrian coach Sherri O’Connor gives lessons at her barn, Far Reach Farm.
“Far Reach Farm is a very welcoming barn whether you are just learning to ride, have been riding, or just want to watch. All are welcome,” Mahoney said. “My coach Sherri cares a lot and makes sure you really understand how you are riding and how to properly communicate with the horse while riding and grooming.”
After a new rider has been taking lessons for a while, the team captains and coach will decide if they are ready to start competing with the team. Traveling to compete at different schools is an exciting reward for the riders because they get to see how other teams set up their rings.
“My favorite place we traveled to so far is Ocala. The show ring there is so pretty and interesting. There are palm trees in the ring and a different array of flags on the outside,” Mahoney said. “I love all the places we go and seeing how special each barn is. It’s fun see what other animals they have besides horses. Each barn has such friendly and cute barn dogs that roam around freely during the shows.”
The team has created a community for themselves that centers around their mutual love of horses and the sport. While they do not compete as a group, they credit their competition success to a strong team support system.
“Although more of an individual sport, we encourage each other and are always there to support one another, which I think is one of the reasons we succeed,” Mahoney said.
The Spartans travel all over Florida and Georgia for competitions throughout the year. So far this year they have gone to Tallahassee for Florida State University, Ocala for University of Florida and University of Central Florida.
“The thrill of being at show is unmatchable. As each one of our teammates goes into the ring we all stand up by the fence and watch and support,”Stevens said. “Whether we do or don’t place in a class, we always have our team to pat us on the back and tell us that we did do a great job.”
The team is headed to Savannah, Georgia to face the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) on Nov. 14 in their last competition of the fall. The spring season will start off against SCAD again, then University of North Florida in St. Augustine and UF before regionals March 13 in Ocala.
UT regularly practices at Far Reach Farm in Lutz, FL. Once a rider has moved out of individual lessons, they have multiple group practice times to choose from. The different group options are so similar experience levels can practice and carpool together.
“Joining the team was the best thing I have done here at UT. Everyone on the team is supportive and willing to help in anyway they can. It’s great being with people who love horses as much as I do,”sophomore rider Jennifer Garrison said