Equestrian team saddles up for spring

by Cecelia Shao | 3/31/13 10:00pm

by Elizabeth McNally / The Dartmouth

"This year, we came in second out of 11 teams in four out of five shows, and ended up in third place in the region," coach Sally Batton said. "One of our riders, Alexa Dixon '15, was high-point rider two competitions in a row. We have some great first-years that came in and really strengthened the team."

Batton was awarded the 2013 Intercollegiate Horse Show Association lifetime achievement award in late January. In her 23rd season as Dartmouth's head coach and riding director, and 30th year overall as an equestrian coach, Batton has led the team to three Ivy League titles, most recently in 2010.

Robert Cacchione, founder and executive director of the IHSA, lauded Batton's expertise.

"I see some techniques changing from the older guard to the new instructors out there today, but at the end of the day the basics are all the same because that's how you ride and control a horse," Cacchione said. "Sally runs a great program here, where novice riders get the help they need with these basics and advanced riders also are provided with guidance."

The Big Green maintains a balance between novice and advanced riders.

"The composition is really half-and-half, with experienced riders and not so experienced riders," Burton said. "A lot of people come in with their own experience."A maximum of two riders compete for Dartmouth in each of the eight classes: the open class for the most experienced riders, the intermediate and novice walk trot canter and the intermediate and novice walk trot, both flat and with fence-jumping.

"I'm genuinely excited to be a member of the team." Justin Maffet '16 said. "I've always wanted to be involved in equestrian. I learned how to ride back home in Nashville when I was younger, but didn't have an outlet to continue it, so I'm very appreciative of the fact that Dartmouth has been able to afford me this opportunity."

Riders who join with previous experience report marked differences in college competition.

"Riding at the collegiate level is completely different," open rider Emily Tregidgo '16 said. "In high school, you train and ride with your own horse, but here you get a new horse every time you go to a show and even at practice."

The team has three to four mounted practices each week, along with two lifts and a yoga session. For competition weeks, team members slated to participate have double practice and spend extra time at the barn.

"It's definitely difficult, but I've been doing it for a while," Tregidgo said. "You learn prioritizing and time management because you do have to be efficient at the barn and in your schoolwork."

In practice, the team focuses on basic horse knowledge and specific horse control techniques.

"Animals are either fight or flight, but horses are very much flight and their first instinct is to run away from a threat," Batton said. "We have to teach the riders how to have control and let the horse know who is in charge by being assertive."

This idea is a key concept in equestrian.

"The ideal rider has confidence, past knowledge, a certain look, the ability to be soft and go with the horse, as well as a good sense of humor," Batton said. "I like riders that have grown up doing other sports because an athlete has very good mind-to-body control, plus they are good at taking directions."

Beyond individual skills, the Big Green riders have formed strong friendships with each other.

"I really am overjoyed with this year's team because they have a fantastic team bond," Batton said. "Horseback riding and competition are very individual, but on this team we have open riders helping walk trot riders and everyone always cheers for each other."

The vibe among team members has improved, Amanda Duchesne '13 said.

"We have a great team dynamic, have a lot of fun together and spend a lot of time together," she said. "The atmosphere has changed it's more comfortable, relaxed and easy-going."

Unlike other sports, riders must accommodate animal personalities.

"What's unique about equestrian is that in other sports, it's just you and your own skill and ability, but in equestrian you also have to take into account the horse's personality and experience," Maffet said.

According to IHSA rules, visiting teams may not ride their own horses and riders cannot choose their horse. Each is assigned a horse, through random selection as well as a matching of the horse's abilities with the skills required in each class.

"It's the luck of the draw when you ride another school's horses, especially when you can't even warm up with the horses," Batton said. "Horses can be very unpredictable creatures, so the most we can do is talk about how you react to different things the horses are capable of doing at home and try to have a basic understanding of the horse by understanding why they do what they do."

Equestrian competitions also rely on judges' assessments, which can be subjective.

"So much of equestrian is based on the judge, so it's very subjective," co-captain Abby Franklin '13 said. "In the end, doing well comes from knowing how well you did, which reflects in the number of ribbons you win."

With so many variables necessary for success, Dartmouth riders point to Batton's guidance as a critical success factor.

"We are so grateful for Sally, and we really couldn't ask for anyone better," Franklin said. "She knows when to push us and when to hold back, and she is very flexible with our schedule."

Batton forms close personal relationships with her riders.

"She takes you under her wing and we are her riders, but she respects us as people and as riders," Duchesne said. "She understands that we have different interests and genuinely wants to know what's going on in our lives."

Co-captains Helena Witte '13 and Franklin provide consistency.

"Our captains have been on the team since their freshman year, and they have always been leaders, even when they haven't been in those captain roles," Batton said.

In the region, Dartmouth's main competitor is the University of New Hampshire, because their program attracts "very good and serious riders with their agriculture and equine studies program," Franklin said. Dartmouth counts Cornell University as its stiffest Ivy competition.

This past Saturday, some team members competed in the Zone 1, Region 2 championship at home in order to qualify for the Zone 1 championships in South Hadley, Maine on April 6.

"We're really looking forward to the Zone championships, but we're also going to be working on our skills for the Ivy League championships in two weeks," Franklin said.

The Ivy League championships will be held at home on Morton Farm on April 13.

"Riding is a lifelong sport that brings people together because there are just so many disciplines out there from dressage to hunt to polocrosse," Cacchione said. "Just look at all the wonderful people on this team they are all in different curriculums, so I'm not sure if they ever would have come together without equestrian."