The dynamic between horse and rider is one formed over time—an element missing from the Western equestrian team’s shows.
One hour before competition, riders from all teams randomly select which horse they will ride from a pool of horses donated by local ranchers and owners. This will be the case for the team’s next show on Jan. 30 and 31 at the Lynden County Fairgrounds.
“It’s literally luck of the draw,” said Rachel Westby, the team’s head coach.
Because Western is hosting the show, the team must provide all of the horses. The teams in the region typically depend on around 50-60 horse donations for each show to be able to compete and qualify for the regional competition, Vice President Keelin Balzaretti said.
Currently, Western’s team is in second place among all the teams in the region.
Most of the horses donated to the competition participate every year. Some donors, mainly current and former coaches, donate more than five horses each, she said.
This table-turning addition is part of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association rulebook, which differs from those of open shows. According to the IHSA, removing the requirements of owning and transporting a horse strengthens the chance for every college student to participate.
“I didn’t grow up in a very well-to-do family,” Balzaretti said. “Now I’m here and I get the opportunity to show, which I’ve never been able to do.”
Much of the competition rides on the psychological connection between the horse and rider, Westby said.
“Showing a horse is a partnership,” Westby said, describing the relationship riders must form a few minutes before competition. “You go in and you’re strapping yourself to 1,000 lbs.”
A horse can sense if the rider is nervous, making it more difficult to command the horse, she said.
“If you don’t press the right button, they’re not going to do it,” Westby said.
This can’t be said for all horses. Some have personalities that make them easier to ride. For horses like Johnny at Westby Equine Center, experience in past competitions makes it easier for him to “guess” the riders’ motives. Bill, a barn favorite, has also run in multiple Western competitions.
“If you pick him, it’s luck of the draw,” Westby said.
Because horses are herd animals, they are always looking for a leader, or a chance to become the leader, said Linda Conroy. Conroy, a rancher who has donated horses for four years, is donating her two horses, Ruby and Dually, to this weekend’s competition.
She said both Ruby and Dually receive good training and supervision with Western’s equestrian team, which is why she feels comfortable donating them to the competition.
Although it won’t matter in this weekend’s competition, about half of Western’s equestrian team members own their own horse, said Leanna Vandlen, an equestrian team member and lifelong rider. Vandlen said she has owned her horse since she was about 14 years old and has formed a strong relationship with him.
“It’s like with somebody and their dog,” Vandlen said. “It’s the same kind of love.”
This long-developed bond between horse and rider will most likely not be present in this weekend’s competition. Riders will have to meet and introduce themselves to the horse and build a mutual understanding of what needs to be done, Vandlen said.
During the competition, judges will grade each class, or skill level, using a point system, Balzaretti said. First place receives seven points, second receives five, third receives four and so on. If a rider accrues 36 points in a season, they move up a level and qualify for regionals.
Riders compete, not only for themselves, but for their team. A team wins a region by garnering the most points against other teams, Balzaretti said. When a team wins a region, they get to bring one person in every level to regionals, which leads to more riders showing and a higher possibility of moving on to nationals, she said.
The regional competition date has yet to be announced, but will likely take place in late March, Balzaretti said.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misspelled the names of Leanna Vandlen, Keelin Balzaretti and Dually, the horse. When identifying where a horse, Johnny, lived, the barn was identified as Twin Maples Farm. He actually resides at Westby Equine Center.