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Sewanee Equestrian Team – An IHSA Competitor’s Experience


By Elizabeth McClendon
The sun is sinking over the Sewanee trees, and all is quiet.  The horses, munching on hay, are looking their best.  The stalls are immaculate, and, as I look down the aisle, I pause and snap a mental image.  This belongs in a catalogue, I think.

The team has been here all afternoon, relentlessly working to make our facility shine.  Some have sore fingers from pulling manes; others left the barn with jeans that were still damp from bathing horses or scrubbing water buckets.  I guarantee that each of us has at least one blister from sweeping.  We are all looking forward to a good meal and an early bedtime because we have two days of full-throttle hosting and competition ahead of us.

These quiet moments that bracket the chaos of showing are just a few of the times when I remind myself that every blister, every Advil tablet, and every sunburn is completely and utterly worth it.

Any equestrian can tell you that riding is anything but an individual endeavor.  Its fundamental concept is the partnership between rider and horse: the more successful that partnership, the more successful the performance.  The IHSA and Sewanee Equestrian focus on this team dynamic and magnify it tenfold.  Your partners include, not just your horse, but all of the horses, teammates, coaches, other competitors, officials, and more.  This bigger perspective is what makes collegiate riding so unique.

Before Sewanee, I was not a competitor.  A schooling show was about as much as I could handle.  A year and a half after joining the equestrian team, I found myself pacing the stands, wringing my gloves in my hands, and chanting to myself, “Hands and toes, hands and toes.”  I’d collected advice from my teammates, some of whom have been showing practically their entire lives.  It was comforting to learn that they too still dealt with nerves.

Because of the IHSA system, your team consists of show campaigners, at the same time, brand new riders, and everyone in-between.  You will always have something to learn and something to contribute.  I might not be the best person to ask for showing advice, but I can cover just about anything outside of the arena.  The skills of individuals on the team span from how to properly roll polo wraps to simply checking to make sure you eat throughout the day.  It all accumulates into that successful performance we try to achieve as riders, as a team, and as equestrians.

                College equestrian life isn’t about ribbons, points, or championships.  It isn’t push-button, and it, most certainly, isn’t easy.

It is, however, about driving to the gas station at 5:30am for Diet Cokes, to ensure happy coaches, and always double-checking that there is coffee in the pot.  It’s about sharing the ShowSheen and doing what needs to be done without being told.  It’s about eight girls squished into a hotel room, sharing a pair of pantyhose so that everyone’s boots are gleaming for the next show day.  It’s about getting back to your dorm and standing in a pile of sawdust when you undress.  It’s about having pockets full of peppermints and realizing that your horse’s breath smells better than yours.  It’s about hand-gathering buckets of clover for the horse on stall rest.  It’s about taking a nap in the tack stall at Nationals, wrapped up in a cooler, before you drive back to school and launch into final exams.

Riding as a college student in the IHSA is about making mistakes and experiencing light bulb moments.  It’s about you, your teammates, your coaches, and every member of the organization, and it is very much about the horses.  It’s about partnership at its most basic to its most complex levels.

                 After a tornado of a weekend, the parking lot is emptying and the barn is getting close to that pristine state it was in two days ago.  I head towards the big pasture with one of the school horses who has, as always, served his riders like a champion.  His coat is damp from his bath, and he chomps on the carrot he snuck from my back pocket.  Once I’ve shut the gate and pulled his halter off, he gives me a quick glance, as if to exclaim, “Finally!”  He whinnies to his friends further out in the pasture, surging off to join them, and I take another mental picture.  This is why I am here and why I continue to come back.

                About the author: Elizabeth is a junior at Sewanee and is from Memphis, Tennessee.

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