May 22 • 05:59 AM

Heartbeats and Hoofbeats

High school equestrians compete for love of horses, teamwork, sport

October 10, 2007
Amidst the thundering clamor of the crowd, rider and horse speed across the arena to the beat of the clock. The rider guides the horse's 1,200 lbs. of bulk around the barrel and races to the finish line, sometimes winning a point for their team by a split second.

Horsemanship, teamwork and love for the sport work hand in hand for the high school equestrian. Beating the odds against them, they attempt the new and different, working toward the ultimate victory as rider, horse and team.

High school equestrian teams, with riders from Imlay City, Almont, Dryden and Lapeer West, competed last month at the Armada Fairgrounds in B and D Divisions for a chance to represent their school at regional competition.

For 31 years Imlay City Coach Judy Kegler has been head coach for District 2, which includes the riders listed above. She has watched more equestrians every year step into the stirrups of diversity to become a member of their district's equestrian team.

Often these young riders are asked to perform in classes they have never competed in. Horses that perform in showmanship, saddleseat or hunt equitation classes during the regular horse show year are thrust into the competitive arena to speed around barrels or weave in and out of standing poles. The students' parents trailer the horses and drive their competitors to meets, help with tack changes, support and encourage them.

Imlay City equestrian Garrett Horton sharply turns his horse ‘Norm’ toward the weave poles during B Division competition. photo by Catherine Brakefield.

After 30 years of being Imlay City's Coach and watching these young riders accept the challenge of trying something different in front of their piers, Kegler says she still gets excited when her team's hard work pays off.

"They come to the equestrian team and attempt different types of riding styles they otherwise would never attempt and have a great time doing it," says Kegler. "And I have great parents, they back these kids 100 percent, even financially, and if you don't have good parents you don't have good riders."

Kegler explains that all the teams compete in the district level. Divisions A, B, C and D and the top team of all three shows go to regionals. At regionals, the top teams in four districts of the same division compete, the top two go to the state finals. At the state finals these divisions compete with 18 districts. The winners of each division become the new state champions.

To make it to the state finals, Kegler says it takes a great deal of sacrifice on the part of the team members, coaches and parents.

"They do a great job," Kegler says with a smile, "but the best part of coaching is taking a rider and watching them grow."

Sophomore Garrett Horton has been on the Imlay City Equestrian Team for two years. He and 'Norm,' his horse, compete in speed competitions like The Southern Thumb Speed Horse Association (STSHA).

"I love this," Horton says.

Senior Brittani Johnson competes in trail, saddleseat, western riding and speed classes with 'Smarty,' her 7- year-old quarter horse. She prefers speed to the other classes and she, too, competes in the STSHA plus the 4-H shows.

For sophomores Noelle Quail and Sandy Seidell, it's their first time on the Dryden High School team and their first attempt competing in speed. Quail's 'Stormy' is doing his best around the barrels. Though sometimes disappointed with her score, she says she's enjoying every moment and is full of gratitude for her coach, Jackie Forbes.

"Jackie is the best coach I ever had," Quail says.

This is Jackie Forbes' eighth year as Dryden's coach. She's been a 4-H coach for 20 years. Dryden is up against some tough teams in D Division, but Forbes has been in tough competitions before. She says there are just two rules she asks every team member to abide by.

"Have fun and stay safe," she says.

Forbes is also eager to acknowledge assistant coach Mellissa Pyzik.

"I couldn't do my job without her," she says.

With eight team members, Almont Coach Amy Miller is competing in B Division, along with Clarkston, Armada and Imlay City's nine riders. Though not doing as well as she hoped, that doesn't dampen her pride at her team's accomplishments.

"I'm really proud of them. A couple of them never showed before and did very well," says Miller. "They really put their all into it."

Imlay City equestrian Brittani Johnson on Smarty competes in B Division flag race. photo by Catherine Brakefield.
Miller's pre-requisite for the team does not include winning. That doesn't mean she doesn't encourage winners.

"I want them to learn horsemanship and teamwork," Miller says, "and that they have some fun with this."

Forbes encouraged Miller to become Almont's coach four years ago and Miller has been enriched by it, she says, and tries to encourage team members through past experiences.

"Jackie and I used to be on Dryden's Equestrian Team when we were kids," Miller grins. "It's fun."

Senior Kelsey Dipirro says she's going to miss riding on the Almont team. It's become one of the highlights of her four years in high school, the experience and teamwork between her horse and her fellow teammates are things she says she will always value.

"You're not riding for yourself," Dipirro says. "You ride for your team."

Some people say that Sandy Bodenbach, Lapeer West's coach, walked right into the winning connection. Bodenbach coaches her daughter, Stephanie and son, Mark Bodenbach, a senior this year.

"We're able to practice more and it makes it easy with just the two of them on the team and being my kids, they're much more accessible," says Bodenbach with a laugh. "They can't give me any excuses."

Bodenbach explains that most schools do not recognize the equestrian team as a sport, but a club. Equestrians are not eligible to receive a varsity letter for team involvement. They cannot attend the sports banquet (they can attend the club banquet).

Bodenbach says they're lucky. Like Almont, Lapeer West riders do receive a letter for being on the equestrian team, though the team is not considered a sport and does not attend the banquet.

"The district has its own sports banquet," Bodenbach says.

When the dust settles after the grueling competitions against Clarkston, Oxford, Armada, Stoney Creek, and Brandon, only one team from each division rode to regionals at the Shiawassee Fairgrounds at the end of September. Lapeer West won Grand Champion in "D" Division with a score of 299 points. This is the first time Lapeer West has made it to the state championships in six years.

"We kicked butt," Bodenbach grins. "We're excited!"

Bodenbach's team will represent Lapeer West at the MIHA State Championships Oct. 11-14th at the Midland Fairgrounds.

Generally, they get little recognition, if any, and few schoolmates outside the equestrian population will recognize their achievement. That doesn't matter to the equestrians of Imlay City, Dryden, Almont or Lapeer West.

They speed across the arena to beat the odds against them for the love of their sport. They're not riding for themselves, or for the recognition of their achievements, but for their team.

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