A horse for everyone

National association brings equestrian sport to schools

WATSONVILLE — The White Rock Equestrian Team's annual horse show and competition was held in Watsonville in November. 
A member of the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA), the team is part of a national program that helps a variety of students compete in horse shows and competitions by providing them with horses and tackle. As a participant in the IEA, Watsonville's White Rock Equestrian Team is required to host or cohost one event every year. 
Emmilou Hightower, an alternate coach for the White Rock Team, has been a coach since 2004 and been hosting events since 2005. 
"There's over 20 students from sixth grade to 12th grade on the team," Hightower said. "It's really exciting when the kids learn a new skill, or like this weekend, this girl who is a freshman now, took first place. She did a really good job riding the horse."
Students participating in the event ride horses that are provided by the host barn and chosen by random draw. The use of personal tack is not allowed and to join the White Rock Equestrian Team, only one year of professional lessons is required.
"When we host a show, we have to gather about 30 horses, take care of them, make sure they are ready to ride and that everything is set up," Hightower said. "We had a really good show this weekend; it was a lot of work and a lot of fun. It was exhausting."
According to Hightower, providing horses for the contestants is one way the IEA helps to involve students who might not have the means to participate in the events.
"To show or own a horse is expensive," Hightower said. "This was designed so that if you can ride a horse you can have fun on a relatively inexpensive basis and compete without owning a horse."
For Hightower, part of the reward for being a coach in this program is watching her students develop and improve their riding abilities.
"It is exciting to see them progress and meet challenges and overcome them," she said. "One good thing is that quite a few of our riders have gotten college scholarships. Most colleges are not looking for top riders, they are looking for good riders that can show at multiple levels."
One IEA high school senior is doing just that and going on to Fresno State to compete with their Division 1 equestrian team next year.
"I will be the only freshman on their hunter-jumper team," said Natalie Wendt, a team member and high school senior from Watsonville. "I think this sport is going to grow more, and IEA gives an in to bigger things with horses."
Wendt, who has been competing in the Varsity Open since she was a high school freshman, said one reason she likes training with an IEA program is that they find a way to make it a team sport.
Classes are offered in four ability levels: beginner, novice, intermediate, open. Points are tracked for individual rider accomplishments and for team accomplishments. Individuals and teams earn points to qualify for regional, zone and national finals.
"Growing up it's always been an individual sport," Wendt said. "I like that they came up with a way to make it team sport and that there are people around for support. You are not only competing for yourself but for your team so you can move up higher together."
In addition to enjoying the sport in a new way, Wendt said she also appreciates the friendships and support from her other teammates.
"You get to meet people you would never have had the opportunity to meet," she said of the people on the White Rock Equestrian Team. "We have watched each other grow as riders and as a people. It is a place you can come from nothing and you will learn to ride a bunch of different horses, which is great."
Wendt performs in the highest level on the hunter-jumper side of the competition. She jumps two-foot six-inch fences and well as showing her horse in a flat class. 
One of the challenges in competing is not knowing what kind of horse you will be riding. 
"You could get a horse that could be doing big shows or one right out of the pastures," Wendt said. "You don't always win, but you learn something new coming out of each class."