College is a time for personal growth, academic maturity and horses.
It is, at least, for a student who can’t imagine a life without the freedom only felt atop 1,500 pounds of majestic beauty or without the aroma of picking stalls clean of horse manure.
Moving to college can’t stop a horse lover’s Ariat boots from finding their way into the stirrups. In fact, riding in school opens up the horse world beyond a barn and pasture at home. Several universities have or are starting equestrian clubs.
Belmont University founded an equestrian team in 2012, giving students a great way to stay in the horse world while in school. Club president and senior public relations major Julie Anderson led her team to finish this year with several first place ribbons against schools with more established teams.
Traditionally, when on a horse at a show it’s an on-your-own thing, but when on a college equestrian team, no one feels alone. Belmont’s team is no exception.
The bonding is undeniable within this group of girls.
Laughs and inside jokes center around not only horses but also overnight stays in smelly hotel rooms for out-of-town competitions and future laser tag plans.
If the girls hadn’t joined the equestrian team, they said none of them would’ve found the friendship they have with each other. Each girl is different: different majors, ages, and hometowns, but all find common ground sitting in a saddle.
They can talk about horses for hours. Their other friends don’t understand all the quirks or fascinations about their four-legged friends. Only fellow horse lovers would laugh when team member Courtney O’Conner says she has a list of horses to steal. Nor would anyone else understand why a gorgeous, gray appaloosa named Stella is at the top of her “borrow” list.
“She can do all these crazy jumper things but she’s still a big comfy couch. It’s beautiful,” O’Conner said of her favorite horse Stella.
Not just anyone would compare a horse to a sofa.
“It’s like our own language nobody else will understand,” Morgan Wilters, a senior biology major on Belmont’s team, said.
The club is short of recognition on campus and has a short roster of 14 girls, eight of whom compete. This isn’t unique to only Belmont’s team. When freshmen think of clubs to join, intramural soccer and Greek life organizations often overshadow equestrian teams.
The girls in this club have become seriously involved and invested. They spend hours taking lessons in disciplines they may have not competed in before. And horse shows are not one man shows; it’s the rider and the horse. The two minds and bodies work together to give a blue ribbon-worthy performance in the ring.
Next year’s club president Allison Harpole had not competed in the hunter jumper shows before joining the team, and she doesn’t regret giving it a try. For her, it was a way to stay around horses and make friends with other girls who share that interest.
“Horse people are so unique,” Harpole said.
Joining a team is a great way to connect with other horse lovers, but not all schools have a competitive intramural riding team.
Arkansas State University does not have a team, but is proud of its equine program with 16 lesson horses and offers two-hour credit courses for beginners, intermediates and advanced riders.
This is ideal for riders without the funding for horses or horse shows. It works into a schedule since lessons are taken as a college class, and with courses offered in three different skill levels, there is no intimidation for a horse lover with little riding experience.
The Arkansas State University Equine Club may not have a competitive team, but it does have something schools in bigger cities can’t always offer: an on-campus facility complete with a barn, pastures and arenas. For student wishing to bring her horse with her to college, this is a great option.
Vanderbilt Equestrian Team captain Margaret Mirro understands the challenges of keeping gentle giants in her life alongside the not-so gentle giants of school and a full calendar.
It takes dedication and sacrifices to balance riding and everything else. Lessons are not comparable to an intramural volleyball team’s one-hour practice, Mirro said. Going out to the barn 40 minutes south of town can easily eat up an afternoon.
The senior Spanish major with minors in biological sciences and chemistry does not remember all the exams she spent countless, sleepless hour studying for, but she remembers “the highest I‘ve ever jumped and the closest I‘ve been to peeing in my pants,” Mirro said of clearing a 3’9” jump.
Mirro has been riding since she was 7 years old; it’s a part of her. Although now as captain and high point rider for the last horse show in her senior year, she hasn’t always been a competitor.
“It’s always been about working with a horse for me and about horsemanship as opposed to competition,” Mirro said.
She has become close to many of the horses she rides, getting to know their unique personalities.
“He is a Palomino jumper, and he is cranky and tries to bite everyone. All the time… He’s actually the greatest,” Mirro said of her favorite school horse Lemon.
Owning a horse is not required for most equestrian teams. Vanderbilt University and Belmont University’s equestrian clubs practice at Hunters Court Stable in Murfreesboro, Tenn. where there are school horses available for the students to ride.
Horseshow competitions are done through the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, IHSA, and it provides horses as well. It is simply luck of the draw which horse a rider will enter the show ring on that day, which keeps them from depending on the same horse’s performance.
“That’s one of the cool things about the IHSA. You get to ride a lot of different horses and you get to know a lot of different horses,” Mirro said. “There’s that initial learning curve when you get on a horse you’ve never ridden before.”
She credits this for challenging her and giving her confidence as a rider. After suffering from high school injuries, she didn’t compete much prior to college.
Graduating with blue ribbons under her belt and great memories down the horse trail, she tells everyone to give it at least one go around in the arena.
“I‘ve never regretted it for a second. I can’t imagine not doing it. If she is just a little bit interested, she should try it. Because you can always say ‘Eh, this isn’t for me.’ But for me it’s been an incredible way to stay with riding, but it’s also been a way a really good way to meet friends.”