Equestrian team fosters dynamic between horse and rider

Members of the Chapman equestrian club compete in ‘equitation’ events, which judge their overall ability and artistic style of riding. However, riders are randomly paired with horses the morning of the event, forcing them to foster an immediate connection with the animal. Photo courtesy of Natalie Teague

As with the dialects of a foreign language, there’s a wealth of details within the sport of equestrian that lends independence and beauty to each event. At least, that’s how Mollie Thomas, the Chapman equestrian club events chair, described it. Within the two major styles of horseback riding, Western and English, lie countless different opportunities to show off a rider’s ability.

“English is the more classic European style and Western is the cowboys and what people think of in old Western movies,” said Thomas, a senior. “We compete in ‘equitation,’ which is judged on the rider, their position, effectiveness, overall how effective and beautiful of a ride they put in.”

The Chapman University Equestrian Team is a club sport, made up of 24 members. In its most simplistic sense, the term ‘equestrian’ refers to riding and working with horses. More technically, the team competes in ‘equitation’ events, as Thomas described.

“The biggest misconception I always hear is, ‘The horse does all of the work.’ That’s not the case,” Thomas said. “If you see a horse and rider going around and it looks like the horse is doing all of the work, then that’s a really good rider.”

This base connection between animal and human can be difficult to capture in the moment. In the morning before the show begins, riders randomly select the name of the horse out of a hat; who they select will be their steed on the same day of a competition. This process equalizes riders in the field, explained Natalie Teague, the Chapman Equestrian Team president, as their skills in managing their horse can be more greatly tested.

“We just get on (the horse) and go in the ring. You might be three jumps in and finally get to that understanding between you and the horse,” Teague said. “It’s like if you were trying to work with someone on something without speaking; it’s all about trying to find common ground.”

Senior and team captain Catie Woodward started her freshman year at Chapman as one of around 12 riders in the club. Now, she said, that number has doubled. Having served as captain since her sophomore year, Woodward has developed the program by working to elevate the team’s profile through recruiting incoming freshmen interested in equestrian. She has big goals for the future of the program.

“I would love to make the selection process a little more particular. Right now, we accept everyone because we want the team to grow, but we want to be more competitive,” Woodward said. “We were only three points behind (the University of Southern California) two weeks ago, so we’re competing against these 40-plus-people-teams and we’re doing well; it’s just a matter of growing.”

Ultimately, the dynamic between horse and rider brings a feeling of tranquility to members of the club. Freshman rider Micaela Wilcox has ridden horses for nine years. When she started with the team at Chapman, her biggest adjustment was finding time in her schedule to ride, but she couldn’t simply ignore her passion.

“I used to ride two to three times a week, but the barn is 25 miles away, so I can’t do that,” Wilcox said. “It was an adjustment finding time to fit in my schedule, but if I didn’t do it I’d go insane. It clears your head.”

Teague agreed, saying time at the barn working with the horses was akin to meditative exercise.

“It forces you to clear your mind. If you’re in a lesson (with a trainer) and you have other stuff going on, then it’s going to be the most frustrating lesson because you have to be present,” Teague said. “It can be difficult making time, but the relief that you have from balancing those things can be worth the effort that goes into putting in the time.”