The first time Hannah Mitchell rode a horse, her father had to tie her on with bungee cords so she wouldn’t fall off.
These days, the freshman standout equestrian leads the Oklahoma State reining team in wins heading into Saturday’s meet with No. 10 New Mexico.
Through eight meets in the 2016-17 season, Mitchell has racked up seven head-to-head victories, headlining a freshmen class that has seen major contributions from several performers. She also has three Most Outstanding Performer awards and a signature win at the end the meet against then-No. 3 Georgia, which sealed the Cowgirls’ tiebreaker win.
OSU equestrian coach Larry Sanchez said in his 18 years with the Cowgirls he has rarely seen anything like it.
“It doesn’t happen all the time, but we have had some freshman show a lot of success,” Sanchez said. “… It does happen occasionally, but it’s not something that happens year after year.”
Mitchell’s performance is a far cry from where she started, lashed to a horse, but everybody starts somewhere.
For Mitchell, somewhere started on day one. She was born into it.
Mitchell’s father, Steve, and her mother, Amy, grew up showing horses. It’s how they met, Mitchell said. Steve shows for a living, buying horses, training them, then selling them before starting the process all over.
Mitchell, from Cuba, Missouri, got her first pony when she was 2. It was both a gift from her father and an introduction her family’s livelihood. Steve said he would always let Mitchell ride with him when she was younger, sitting just in front him in the saddle, learning how to steer, stop and everything in between.
By the time she was 3, she was ready to ride on her own. If she wasn’t the bungee cords were there for insurance.
“It was all great until the pony tried to lay down and roll with her,” Steve said. “So, I had to run and get her off of there.”
Rollover aside, Mitchell took to it as her parents before her, and showing became a defining element of her life. It just came natural.
“Michael Jordan was born to play basketball; that kid was born to ride,” Steve said. “It’s just in her blood. She absolutely loves it. That’s all she thinks about from daylight ’til dark.”
The basketball comparison is apt; Mitchell took up the sport in fourth grade. After learning the skills necessary to perform on a horse and the court, her desire to compete was insatiable. She credits her father for that.
“I think he’s the one that really made me go the extra mile and always keep pushing myself to work harder and to really be the best,” Mitchell said. “I know he’d accept me if I wasn’t very good, but he always says ‘You need to be the best. Try to be the best.’”
It’s a mentality Mitchell’s parents have worked to instill in their children early, Steve said. In the Mitchell household, the simplest of things — running down to the barn, picking up toys, doing homework — all became competition.
“When you’re not competing, you’re not trying,” Steve said. “… It’s just kind of a way of life here. If we’re playing checkers, it’s life or death.”
Mitchell took to the work ethic like she took to the sports. She’s a self-described “achiever,” who likes “to be the best at everything.”
Growing up, if she wasn’t at school, she was riding. If she wasn’t riding, she was practicing basketball. Mitchell said her father put up a light outside, so she could get up shots after the sun went down. Steve remembers a winter where his daughter insisted on dribbling in the garage because there was too much snow on the ground to practice outside. Mitchell practiced literally day and night.
“A lot of nights I would get home, and she would be at the barn riding,” Steve said. “I’d get home at 6 or 7, we’d go to the house and we’d go eat, then we’d go back and we’d ride for three or four hours.”
The late nights were only possible because Steve broke down and purchased an indoor arena, complete with lights for midnight practice sessions, Mitchell said.
The many hours of practice resulted in an equally lengthy list of awards across multiple disciplines. Mitchell started where many equestrians start, with leadline, a showing competition where a younger rider sits atop the horse while a handler guides it before eventually moving up to reining when she 10 or 11.
Unlike other families in the equine industry, Mitchell didn’t have professional trainers. She and Steve taught themselves the discipline together with a little help from Mitchell’s first reining horse.
“His name was Skeet, and he’s just a big, fat nothing,” Mitchell said. “He just trots around, loafs around; he’s so lazy, but he taught me a lot, and he was very forgiving. I don’t think I would be as good as I am today without him being so forgiving when I was riding because I was awful when I started.”
Within a year, Steve said, that changed, and over the next handful of years Mitchell started to pile up awards and draw the attention of Division I collegiate equestrian programs.
OSU coach Larry Sanchez said he and his team had their eyes on Mitchell well before she committed to ride for the Cowgirls. His endorsement was glowing.
“She can ride,” Sanchez said. “The girl’s got a lot of talent; she’s got a lot of feel. Her family puts her on a lot of different types of horses, most of whom are not quite finished yet, so she’s had to really ride many different types of horses, which set her up for being a good college rider.”
Joining the program wasn’t a hard sell. The Mitchell family knew senior horsemanship rider Miranda Reed’s family, and at the behest of Sanchez, Reed encouraged Mitchell to come to Stillwater for a visit. It was Mitchell’s first offer, official or otherwise. Mitchell meshed instantly with western coach Jenna Blumer and the rest of the team, she said.
“They were just so honest about everything,” Mitchell said. “Any question I asked them, they were so honest and they were so nice and I just felt like as soon as I came here, I would have a million friends.”
On her official visit, Mitchell got the full OSU experience during Homecoming week. She and her family participated in the Walkaround, went to the football game and even ate dinner with Sanchez and his family.
Despite offers from Baylor and Texas A&M, Mitchell chose orange and OSU.
When she arrived on campus in the fall, Mitchell put her work ethic back to work. She had no intention of starting, but she wanted to make sure she was noticed. As everything had been a competition growing up, Mitchell competed at the small aspects of collegiate equestrian while learning to fit in to a team environment.
“I would always go and pick the other girls horses up from the barn and help them saddle and always be the one that went a little bit extra,” Mitchell said. “In practice, I always made sure I got along with the horses and really showed Jenna I can earn the horses trust cause that’s a big role when you’re showing other horses.”
Through practice, Mitchell earned more than the horses’ trust; she earned a spot in the Cowgirls’ opening day lineup against Delaware State, impressing Sanchez with her “grit” and “toughness.” Mitchell lost that day, but she hasn’t lost since, winning seven straight.
“She doesn’t get rattled,” Sanchez said. “(She) keeps her emotions in check no matter if she draws the really nice horse or a tougher one. That’s the toughness I see her having, and that comes from how she was raised.”
For the parents who raised her, Mitchell’s opportunity was a pleasant surprise, but her success was expected.
“I knew Hannah would go and ride good,” Steve said. “But I know there’s other good kids that ride on that team, too, so that’s just icing on the cake for her to get to show her first year.”