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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Passion for Riding: The Equestrian Club At UCI

By Jazmin Orozco

Back straight. Shoulders back. Knees up. Heels down. Abs tight. Elbows down and balanced. Head steady. Leather-gloved hands gripped firmly on the reigns. Wait for the announcer to call your name while straddling a horse that may or may not choose to be agreeable. Nudge the horse’s side and enter the ring. Line up with the competition and keep the horse walking. Wait for the chance to show what you’ve learned. This is equitation. This is what they do in the Equestrian Club at UCI.

The Equestrian Club specializes in competing in horse shows, a sport that requires poise, strength, and patience with having a horse as a partner. Small in number and not sponsored by UCI, the equestrian team largely carries itself to achieving its goals by staying dedicated and passionate toward horse riding.
“When you tell people about it, they’re like ‘We have a team’?” recalled Captain Chelsea Treser. “Over here at UCI, it’s a little team. Three of us competed this year, but there was five people on the team. It’s still new. This is only its third year, and its first year, my freshman year, we didn’t hardly compete at all. We were still just trying to get everything organized, so it’s still tiny.”

The 2010-2011 equestrian club consists of UCI students Chelsea Treser, Kelly Taylor, Jessa Sinnot, Victoria Lee, Neeka Farhad, and Alexis Goldring. Coming from different hometowns, backgrounds, and majors, all these girls share one thing in common: their love for horses.

Freshman Kelly revealed, “It was nice when I moved here, ‘cause I was from Norcal and I didn’t know anyone. I’m not a Socal person—it was a total culture shock—so it was nice to join a club where we all have similar interests. All horse people are relatively the same. We all have the same kind of characteristics. It’s awesome.”

Horse riders are most recognizable for their outfit: knee-high leather boots, breeches, which are the tight pants with patches on the knees, show jacket, which look like a man’s dress coat jacket, dress shirt with a collar buttoned up to the chin, usually black helmet to keep all the hair tucked underneath with a hairnet, and black. Even horses have to look their best, Chelsea informed: “We clip their legs, like long hairs on their hooves, so we clip those up. And then they get whiskers so we have to clip the whiskers. We clip them a bridle path, which is where the mane is, and we clip about an inch, just so the bridle can sit there. And then we clip their ears, they have hairy ears…and then just whatever tack they use—saddle, bridle, pad.”

While all the strict policy on appearance may make horse showing seem like a delicate sport, riding horses comes with considerable risks. “Everyone falls off. If you’ve ever talked to a horse person that said they’d never fallen off they either haven’t been riding long, they haven’t been riding difficult horses, or are lying to you,” Kelly elaborated.

“It’s [...] one of the most dangerous sports,” Chelsea stated. “I mean you’re riding an animal, so it can do anything to you.”

This is a notion only clearly understood when facing a 17-hand (5’10” height from hoof to back) tall horse, staring at its dark eyes, observing the pulsing veins in its arms and legs, and hearing it loudly heave its hot breath as it paws the ground with enough force to kick up the pebbles underneath its hooves. These animals are large and powerful; if anyone gets in the wrong place at the wrong time, contact from a swift kick of the hoof can cause serious damage.

“You’re sitting on this beast and they could kill you if they really wanted to. And they’re letting you sit on them and ride them,” Kelly continued. “And you’re just kind of sitting on them, and when you’re cantering around, especially when you’re out on the hills and it’s more natural, cantering along, it’s just the most relaxing thing ever. It’s amazing.”

Lest this intimidates potential future equestrian team members, most of the four-hoofed creatures are gentle and the club accepts riders of all levels, even complete beginners. In fact, the first thing members learn is how to properly care for a horse, feed it, and clean its stall, just like any other pet.

“I think it’s a great experience. I mean, you don’t have to have ANY riding experience at all, and if you’re even the slightest bit interested in horses, this is the best way to get into it because you don’t have to buy your own horse, you don’t even have to technically take care of your horse,” Chelsea advocated. “It’s way cheaper than what it really is [in the real horse world], way cheaper. And it’s fun!”

The equestrian team at UCI was founded in Fall 2008 by student Neeka Farhad and coach Tina Davey, who used to work on the collegiate equestrian team at UC Santa Cruz. The team competes within the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA), which was founded on the principle that any college student should be able to participate in horse shows regardless of his or her riding ability or financial status. All accredited universities are eligible to participate in IHSA and individual members of IHSA must be full-time undergraduate students in good academic standing, unless they are competing as alumni. The universities are categorized into Zones within states, and further separated into Regions. UC Irvine is classified as Zone 8, Region 2.

There are three different types of horse shows: Jumper’s, Hunter’s, and Equitation. Jumper’s is all about time, speed, and having the horse jump over appropriate fences with no faults. Hunter’s is like a beauty pageant, slow, rhythmic, and focused on the horse. Equitation is based on horsemanship, how well a rider handles the horse, and how well of a posture they ride the horse with. The UCI team only competes as a team in equitation, and they are judged based off of what they learned in lessons and the horse’s and rider’s appearance.

According to the IHSA rulebook, team members can choose to compete as a team and/or as individuals in their specific class (skill level). They are judged and ranked, and earn points generally as follows: 1st place—7 pts; 2nd place—5 pts; 3rd place—4 pts; 4th place—3 pts; etc. Cumulative and aggregate point totals of team and individuals are added up over the season to determine if the team or individual members can compete in regional, zones, and national championships, since there is a minimum point qualification to compete at each level. When there are more members from a school participating in a round, they have a greater chance of gaining more points since there are more people to fill the places, and therefore, a greater chance of reaching nationals.

“USC always wins our divisions because they have so many [20-30] girls that they just acquire a huge amount of points. UCI girls, we win a lot but we just have so few people that we can’t add up enough points to win our region,” Kelly explained.

A typical horse show will have a school host the show at a nearby ranch, which will provide horses for the most part, unless riders wish to bring their own horses. UCI hosts its own show annually at the Elvenstar Equestrian Center in Moorpark. Teams from other schools simply show up and wait to ride their horses since they don't get to warm up with them before competing. This leaves a lot of time for the team to mingle, hang out, or buy delicious breakfast burritos from the food trucks that often come out to these events.

"Once we’re at shows we’ll just be like 'Hey go UCI'! We’re pretty close for a team that isn’t able to spend as much time together as possible," Victoria said with a smile.

With the backdrop of flowering trees, dirt roads, and the ever-present smell of hay, it's easy to relax and feel in a completely different world from the hustle and bustle of college life. At a horse show, everyone talks about horses, whether it's about riding, training, buying, selling them,or a mother telling her child, "You can ride your pony tomorrow". That's not normally something you would hear anywhere else, but it's completely normal for "horse people". They all have a twinkle in their eyes when they speak about horses or tell tales of their riding history, and there's a sense that these people have dedicated their lives to horses and horse riding.

Before the competition starts, riders pick names of horses on pieces of paper out of a hat to see which horse they ride. They wait until they are able to compete--which can be sometimes over an hour--watch the horses warm up with trainers for a few minutes, and finally climb onto the horse they are assigned to. With random horses, it makes it fair for everyone competing and it challenges the skill of the rider. Sometimes horses will behave well and respond to the directions of the rider. Other times, riders will get a horse that doesn't exactly want to support them.

"Sometimes they’ll purposely do what you don’t want them to do. The most common thing is they’ll kick out with their back feet, or they’ll squeal. Ears back means that they’re mad," Kelly explained.

She has had quite a bit of experience with difficult horses, most notably, USC horse Callahan, a great horse at jumping, which she drew nearly every single time often had to "fight" with at competitions. "There are some horses where you’re just never going to get along with them and you just have to try as hard as you can to stay patient with them. It’s just like people; there’s some people you meet where you try really hard to be friends with them, but you just can’t. There’s something about them that bothers you. It’s the same with horses, but instead of fighting with them, you just have to let it go."

On the bright side of this adversity, doing well with an unruly horse makes a victory much sweeter. “You know, you get like one round that you went on it, which is like 2 minutes, so it’s very exciting to just get on a horse that you don’t know and if you have a good round, you’re like ‘Wow’, like ‘I did good! It means I’m a good rider!’” Chelsea said with a bright look in her eyes.

At the start of a round, the riders all line up when they are called and enter the ring. In basic equitation rounds, an announcer will call out which pace of gait the horse is supposed to do: walk, a slow walk; trot, a fast-paced walk; canter, a slow run; gallop, a full-on run; and post, where the horse is almost bouncing, but a rider must pick up their hips along with the horse. All of this must be done while remaining in proper posture in order to avoid losing points.

Victoria advised, “It’s all in the legs and arms. Horse riding makes you really sore. Basically, your inner thighs, and your foot is in the stirrup, but then you have to push down to stay in the seat, then you’re working your whole leg. Sometimes after a lesson I end up walking like this [wobbles two fingers in an upside down v-shape across the table].”

Afterward, riders get placed and receive ribbons, or in special cases, equipment such as boot polish or a bridle for the horse, which comes at a nearly $100 value. But even if the riders don’t win anything, they still have a good time hanging out together as a team. According to Chelsea, the girls don’t get to see each other much at school, but they click instantly when they attend shows and have fun. “Sometimes events are Saturday/Sunday. It’s an individual event Saturday and an individual event Sunday, but at the same place. So if it’s Saturday we’ll go back to the hotel or clean up the horses first, obviously, then go back to the hotel and eat dinner.”

The show season lasts mostly from Fall to Winter quarter, and Spring is reserved for the higher level competitions. The farthest the UCI team has advanced is Zones, the highest level below National championships. Chelsea reached 3rd place in individual competition, just short of qualifying for the National championship—only 1st and 2nd place winners at Zones are eligible to participate in Nationals. “My goal was to go to Nationals and—I mean, I didn’t make it—but I was still really excited that I made it to Zones, so that was really fun. I was so close!” she recalled with sincere excitement.

Although the season has ended, most of the team continues to practice and Chelsea continues to participate in shows. The third year Criminology major drives back and forth between Irvine and home to practice riding with her horses for an average of 3 to 4 days a week. Home for Chelsea is Norco, a roughly 45-minute drive from Irvine on a good day, and the nation’s most horse-friendly city, where one can find hitching posts at Burger King. She grew up with horses her whole life: both of her parents used to ride horses, her father is now an equine doctor, and she rode her first pony when she was 3 years old. She has never had fear being near horses, and everything about riding seems as natural to her as breathing air.

At a recent show in San Juan Capistrano on May 14th, she brought her horse, Ace, to prepare the 10-year old horse for jumping in shows. “This is for him,” she would say with a pat on Ace’s red mane, a "snorty, wild", slightly clumsy horse. He was fidgeting, pawing the ground, biting in the air, and moving his head back and forth the entire time Chelsea and Mary Nicita, her home trainer of nearly 7 years, were tacking (putting on the bridle and saddle) him up.

“He doesn’t have any manners. That’s why he’s here,” Chelsea said with a laugh. The big problem child-horse had great talent in jumping at home practices, but not so much at shows.“He’s not so bad once you’re on him,” Chelsea reassured before confidently stepping off from the horse’s trailer onto his back. She made riding a nearly 7-foot tall horse look as easy as riding a bike with training wheels as they trotted away to the practice ring.

Mary had warm eyes and a friendly tone as she watched Chelsea practice and spoke with friends from Norco. The two appear very close, almost like family. Excluding school competitions, Mary has been traveling with Chelsea to most of her shows since they teamed up years ago. Only a few of the equestrian team member’s parents have visited little more than a couple times, due to distance, time, and money. Yet the girls do well enough on their own to keep their competitive drive. Chelsea is the only one in her family who still rides to this day, and Mary elaborated on that self-driven desire to improve her riding: “She was under another trainer’s care, but she wanted to progress, so she came to me. But with her being more advanced, you don’t train them as much as coach them.” The coaching goes for both the rider and the horse, since it takes more than just a good rider or a just a good horse to do well in a horse show.

First year member Kelly Taylor also grew up with horses on a 28-acre horse ranch in Lemoore, a town close to Fresno. She got her first pony at age 2, started showing at 3-4 years, and started jumping at 5 years old. She has been working at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center since last October, and was in the process of putting a brown horse back in its stall as we met. She appeared exactly in her element sitting atop a horse in her dusty polo shirt, leather boots, riding helmet revealing strands of blonde hair, chipped blue nail polish, and cell phone attached to the hip.

“I love it. I love being around horses. It’s a lot more relaxing than being at school, or working at school. I would hate to work at school because I live on campus, and I go to school on campus, and if I had to work on campus, too, it would drive me insane. I have to get out of there, just go somewhere else, and horses are so relaxing.”

Kelly works with horses almost every day, whether it's cleaning them, brushing them, getting them out to exercise, or getting horses ready for students to take their lessons at the Elvenstar ranch. Yet even with all the experience, equitation was something new and challenging for Kelly. “I’m a jumper so it’s a lot different. I joined the team because you’re able to show for a lot cheaper than you would otherwise, and you’re able to ride with a lot of horses and it’s a good experience. But it’s a different style of riding than I’m used to so it took me a little while to get used to it ‘cause I don’t really ever show for equitation.”

Jumping is much different than equitation since there is less emphasis on the way the rider looks and a more lenient policy on how straight a rider’s back should be. However, Kelly has a bad back, which causes difficulty in keeping a complete straight form during an equitation round, something she gets marked down for. “So I’ve been working on trying to strengthen my back so it will stay up, but it’s really hard. A lot of people at nationals just stand really straight and have the really long legs and just look better on a horse, so I’m trying, but I still get to jump so it doesn’t really matter to me. And my horse [Paparazzo a.k.a. Pops] is here, so I come out here everyday and I ride, but I only take one lesson a week.

Victoria Lee, a second year, comes from a much different background. The petite East Asian Studies major from San Jose joined the equestrian club in her first year, although she had never ridden a horse in her life. Victoria explained, “As a kid I really liked horses but then I didn’t have any chance to ride them or work with them” until she found the equestrian club through an Anteater Recreational Center (ARC) brochure and tried out. "I’m one of those really non-athletic people, so I guess you can say joining equestrian team was my first real sports experience."

Tryouts was the first time Victoria rode a horse. "I was a little scared because when they say tryouts, it’s like, ‘oh, you probably already need to know how to ride and they want to see your skill level, but oh, I’ve never ridden before’…but our coach, Tina [Davey] she was really nice.” She told Victoria, “We just want to see what your skill level is, and then if you’ve never ridden it’s okay because the club accepts anybody of any level.” Victoria has participated in only one show, but she tries to go to all the events to support and hang out with her teammates, and take spectacular photos of all the competitors.

As fun as it is, being on the equestrian team does not come without its hurdles, the biggest of which are high financial cost and not enough members. “We’re trying to figure out new ways to advertise it, but it’s really hard because, I mean, UCI’s kind of more academic oriented, and as soon as students hear how much things cost—granted it’s way cheaper than what the real world is like in riding—but when they hear how much it costs and when they hear how much commitment it is…they kind of get turned off,” Chelsea stated.

Practice space and time is reserved at the Elvenstar Ranch in the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, a 20 minute drive away from UCI. Depending on how much one practices, the club may or may not take up too much time. “Our team requires at least an hour a week, so that’s like no time at all,” Chelsea stated. “But because I have my own horse and because I still ride with my trainer back home, I mean, I’m riding almost every day—at least 4 hours, 5 hours.”

It is $50 for an hour lesson at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, or $500 a quarter. The equipment can also get pricey: practice boots from $30-50, half-chaps from $20-50, show coats from $100-400, breeches from $75-300, show boots can be up to $1000 or more, and even saddles generally cost thousands of dollars. These expenses seem to be the main turnoff for prospective members, as well as the weekly trek to Huntington Beach, which causes significant obstacles for those without a car, like Victoria, who hasn’t taken as many lessons because she had no transportation.

"It's definitely not a cheap sport, but there are ways around it as long as you shop smart," the experienced captain informed. She usually bypasses the costs by buying used attire and looking for good deals. Fellow member Kelly pays her team expenses by working at their practice center. For all the members, the expenses are worth the time spent with horses and progressing as riders, although they hope to raise funds for their club in order to encourage more people to join.

“I think if we cut it down to $200 less, it would seem more affordable to people,” Victoria suggested. The club members also plan on creating ways of recruiting people, even going as far to use clothing to catch the eye with personalized polo shorts. However, it may only take a member wearing a riding outfit to attract recruits. Kelly laughed, “I come out here and I ride after class, so I wear my riding clothes to class and people walk up to me and go ‘Do you ride horses?’ and I go ‘Yeah’. They go ‘Wait, do we have a team here?’ ‘Yes we do…’ ‘I didn’t even know about it! Oh my gosh!’”

The goal for the club is to have 15 members next year and inspire more people to see horses the way they do. They are more than just animals in a sport; they have personalities, they act like pets, and the club members do get attached.

Whether it’s Ace with the attitude (who behaves when given red licorice), Sassy, the feisty redheaded main horse for UCI, or Dominique, the docile white and gray-speckled pony with a constant appetite, horses become close to the equestrian team.

Kelly elaborated on the bond between horse and rider: “When you’re on a horse and you’re both on the same page, it kind of feels like—I don’t know, this sounds kind of cheesy—it feels like you’re both kind of becoming one because you’re sitting on them and you’re moving with them, you’re not moving against them, and it’s really relaxing and it kind of feels like you’re in a rocking chair and they know exactly what you want them to do, and it’s just graceful.”

According to Chelsea, being able to be with horses is the greatest reward of the sport: “They’re really important. I guess it’s like a dog: when you just have a bad day, they’re always there and they can always make you feel better and when you’re riding all you can focus on is just riding. Like, you don’t have to worry about school, you don’t have to worry about home life, you don’t have to worry about anything. It’s just riding. It’s really relaxing and it’s really nice. And when you work really hard for something and you actually win or do well, it’s just really nice. It’s nice to set goals and achieve them. Sometimes, it’s like you’re even happy when you didn’t win, but you know that your horse was good. You know you were good…I’m happy with that."

Reporting Notes:

30 minute interview with Chelsea Treser + email correspondence
30 minute interview/45 minute observation with Kelly Taylor
30 minute interview with Victoria Lee
6 hour observation + interview dispersed throughout duration with Chelsea Treser and Mary Nicita

Equestrian Club at UCI’s Facebook page
Photo 1 and 3 courtesy of Victoria Lee; rest of the photos by Jazmin Orozco

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