By Will Ryan–
At 5:30 a.m. on Groundhog’s Day, most students were sound asleep while a snowstorm passed by their windows. The U of L Equestrian Team, however, braved the icy roads to Midway, Ky. to represent the Cardinals in a regional horseback riding competition hosted by the all-women’s Midway College.
There are two main styles of horseback riding: English, or “Hunt Seat,” and Western, or “Stock Seat.” U of L’s Equestrian team is divided into separate teams for each style, with their own coach, events, practice space and competition schedule.
The Western style of riding features riders wearing typical cowboy outfits, including custom cowboy hats and boots with jeans and a flannel shirt for guys and sparkly dresses for girls. Riders of the Western style train for two different events: Reigning and Western Pleasure. Reigning features the flashiest riding possible, with riders memorizing complex patterns of sprints, spins and sliding stops to be performed in front of a judge.
Western Pleasure, on the other hand, is focused on grace and effortlessness. A judge calls out commands such as speed increases or turns that the riders have to complete as smoothly as possible by subtly changing pressure in different parts of their legs and slightly shifting their weight forwards or backwards. The point of the competition is to make it seem as though the horse is following the judge’s commands on his own, rather than being controlled by the performer, sort of like a larger version of ventriloquism.
Riders in the English style, who perform wearing breeches, dress shirts, sports coats, polished boots and fancy helmets, focus on appearing prim and proper while being thrown around by their horses. In the Equitation over Fences portion of the competition, riders memorize a map of hurdles that they have to quickly navigate their horses over without getting thrown off, which takes a considerable amount of effort. The second event in the English competition is Equitation on the Flat, which is pretty much the same as Western Pleasure but with a different set of moves.
There is a third branch of the Equestrian team, Saddle Seat, which is an English style of riding that is similar to Equitation on the Flat, but the competitions in this style are governed by the Intercollegiate Saddle Seat Riding Association. The English and Western styles, on the other hand, are organized by the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. Equestrianism is actually an extremely popular sport worldwide and Lexington is home to one of the largest annual horse show competitions in the world, the Rolex Kentucky Three Day, which is on the same scale as the equestrian events in the Olympics.
One of the hardest parts of the equestrian competition is the improvisation. Riders find out which horse they have to perform on just a few minutes before the event, so they have to pay attention to each horse’s disposition and adjust their technique on the fly. The order that the obstacles are to be completed in is announced the day of the event, so the riders cannot train on a similar course to prepare.
The team’s next event is on Feb. 23 and 24 at Lakeside Arena in Frankfort, Ky.
Photo by Will Ryan/The Louisville Cardinal