Equestrian emphasizes horse-rider connection, home field advantage

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Equestrian is not a conventional sport.

It’s a sport where its version of a ball has a life and mind of its own.

It’s a sport where that same ball can love you or have physical ability to kill you.

It’s a sport where not only is there an abstract connection between the player and the ball, but also a stronger emphasis on home field advantage.

In reality, this ball is not a ball. It’s a horse.

Collegiate equestrian’s horse riding policies are simple. The visiting team riders have four minutes to ride one of the home teams’ horses. Unlike the National Collegiate Equestrian Championships, an away team cannot bring its horses while on the road. Therefore, experience and natural instinct with horse riding is imperative.

OSU coach Larry Sanchez said that there is a psychological connection between the horse and rider during a ride. The horse is able to pick up what the rider is feeling based on movement, especially during a meet.

“Their competitive nerves send a different message to that horse compared to a practice day,” Sanchez said. “The horse picks up on that. They are herd animals, so there’s a dominant individual. In our herd of two between horse and rider, the horse is relying on the rider. If they sense nerves, even if it’s just because you’re competing, they’re going to react differently.”

The nerves that a rider has during a ride decreases the more experience and familiarity they have with a particular horse which makes home-field advantage of heightened importance. 

“It’s definitely a new comfort level,” OSU rider Sarah Miller said. “It’s one less thing that you have to think about while at home.”

With familiarity comes expectation. When a rider feels a horse not acting like it's expected it to act, the nervous signals are transferred to the horse.

“I’d say it’s sometimes harder to ride your own horse,” Miller said. “You go in with such a high expectation that you start to overthink things. You learn to trust yourself more on the away meets.”

A horse also cannot be controlled as easily as a ball, especially during practice. Sanchez said that the performance of a horse in practice is not indicative as to how it will ride during a meet. 

“Here at home, they (the riders) might think, ‘He did this to me last Tuesday,’ but he might not do it today so why think about it,” Sanchez said. “It’s just going to put more things in there to cloud your best judgment.”

The surroundings are another factor that ties into how a horse performs. Factors such as crowd noise, music and cameras can frighten the horses because they are not accustomed to facing the pressure during a practice ride.

“We can’t go into a meet expecting our horses to act like they did the day before,” OSU rider Stephanie Helsen said. “They just know that it’s a whole new kind of pressure. We have to kind of reset our mind to make the horse perform well solely on that day.”

Riding a horse on the road has its challenges. Riders are taught to adjust during the first minute of riding a new horse, a skill that requires constant practice on different horses.

Freshman OSU rider Katie Pelzel said the secret is to treat it like meeting a new person. A rider would communicate with an away horse differently than a home horse.

In addition, experience comes into play when riding a horse on the road. Usually, riders have an educated yet instinctual feel on the horse’s mood is before a ride.

“I definitely use my feel,” Miller said. “If I feel like they are getting hot, I will sense it and will have to trust myself to not overthink things while riding.”

Even when they are not riding, riders’ experience and instinct are enormous necessities.

During a meet, the home team warms the horses up first. This allows riders to observe how the horses react while on the road. Helsen said the warmup is an important time during a meet because it not only lets away riders see how the home team rides its horses, but also gives them an idea on how they behave before getting on.

Anyone can also spot physical signs of a horse’s mood through the naked eye. For example, if a horse’s ears are pointed back, it is agitated. On the other hand, a horse with its head down indicates it is calm. Helsen said those signs are what riders focus on, enabling them to know how the horse is feeling.

“You can tell when a horse really loves their job because they want to do it well to please you,” Helsen said. “Other horses just don’t have that mindset. Some are looking to please you and some are looking to just get out of work.”

Sanchez picks his horses wisely because a horse’s mood can vary so much. The OSU equestrian team receives its horses through various donors. Although horses are constantly donated, Sanchez has a certain standard when choosing. When Sanchez accepts donations, he is looking for experienced show horses that are 6 or 7 at the youngest and have the qualities and training necessary to compete. 

Horses are not all bred the same. Show horses have a different set of criteria compared with race horses. A horse’s training and bloodline are the biggest components.

“It’s all bloodlines,” Sanchez said. “When you breed a fast race horse too a fast race horse, you’d expect to have a fast offspring and are only expected to run fast. In the show industry, you’re looking for proven show horses to breed with one another and need to have a mind to accept training. We’ve actually had several horses who have come off the race track that were converted into show horses. When I started the program, a majority of our hunter seat horses were off the track.”

Sanchez is no stranger to having quality horses.

Two years after starting the equestrian program at OSU, Sanchez received a donated horse named Doug Vaughan who competed for the Canadian Olympic team. Doug Vaughan is one of the horses that Sanchez was able to develop into a show horse.

Sanchez said that he has one of the best horse herds in collegiate equestrian with horses like Oakley, Hogan and Boss currently leading the way.

Specifically, Boss, a reigning horse, has won horse of the year twice while at OSU.

“Boss is a celebrity,” Cowgirl rider Hannah Mitchell said “This year was the first time I’ve ever showed him. I was so exciting.”

Boss is an example of the countless horses that have been at OSU. With Sanchez meticulously selecting horses, a standard of quality has been established within his program. Although a horse is not as controllable as a ball, the attachment between rider and horse is what makes equestrian unique.

sports.ed@ocolly.com