“Home Field Advantage” For Equestrian Comes Via Considerable Effort from Team Members and Alumni

Gallery: Images of equestrian show preparation.

By Brian Bennett

Like any other sport, for equestrian much goes into preparing for a home contest. The course needs to be laid out, such as in cross country. Event order and participant placement is established, similar to swimming. The competition ground needs to be groomed, like softball. Accommodations for competitors and spectators need to be arranged, common to every competition. And like hockey players meticulously examining skate edges and stick blades, checks of the equipment to be used are made, although unique to equestrian, those preparations include an additional competitor: horses and all their requisite tack.

But unlike all those other sports, equestrian stands alone in that all of the preparations made for hosting a home competition are made by the athletes themselves. And, in the case of Geneseo equestrian, the volunteer workers include a cadre of loyal alumni whose efforts are a considerable contribution to a successful show.

“It’s definitely not something that other sports do,” said Ashley Olin ’15. “From course design and saddle cleaning to setting up chairs and tables for the other teams, Geneseo equestrian does everything to make sure that the shows run smoothly.”

Olin is one of a number of equestrian alumni who returned for the shows hosted by Geneseo on Oct. 31, Nov. 1 and Nov. 7. Julianne Pangal ’12, Ryan Lefkowitz ’13, Kristin Rabb ’13, Anna Eschler ’15 and Bri Szopinski ’15 all volunteered their time, while April Krenzer ’13 is a consistent presence due to her role as barn manager at Leg Up Stables, where the Knights train and host competitions. And throughout the day, the smooth voice and polished delivery of public address announcer Julianne Batelli '12 keeps spectators and participants up-to-date on event details and results, a role she's filled for the past three seasons.

Geneseo is one of three programs in Region 2, Zone 2 of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) that have the physical facilities, as well as the required number of horses and tack, to host shows. Eight shows are held in the region, scheduled for Saturdays and Sundays over four weekends. Each of the three schools (Geneseo, St. Lawrence and Cazenovia) rotate the number of shows they host annually on a 3-3-2 basis. For the 2015-16 season, the Knights are hosting three regional shows, all coming at the start of the season.

"The ability to host horse shows is a huge asset for our team. They allows our girls the opportunity to show at home on horses they are familiar with, which often results in great rides and very successful placings," said Coach Kim Sanford. "That being said, hosting IHSA shows are a huge undertaking and we could not do it without the hard work of every member of the team and the support of our alumni. We are incredibly grateful to have such dedicated alumni who volunteer their time to help us out every year."

Geneseo enjoys the use of high-quality facilities at Leg Up Stables, including the 80' x 200' indoor riding arena, which was constructed last season. The stables are unequaled as a Region host in the number of show-ready horses, as St. Lawrence and Cazenovia both frequently ask to borrow horses in order to host their shows. 

The preparations for and running of a horse show is a tremendous undertaking, requiring the labor of each of Geneseo’s 34 team members as well as alumni volunteers and staff of Leg Up Stables. A good amount of the administration of the show falls on the team captains, senior Emma Witherwax and junior Cassandra Ingalls. Witherwax, in her second year as a team captain, recently took some time during the busy weeks heading into the start of the season to share the “laundry list” of necessary tasks.

Entry forms are emailed to the participating schools, with the number of entries determining the number of rides that need to be provided in each of the nine primary divisions (three levels over fences: Open, Intermediate and Novice; six classes on the flat: Open, Intermediate, Novice, Advanced Walk Trot Canter, Beginner Walk Trot Canter and Walk Trot). In the Oct. 31 show, there were 32 classes in 11 divisions (two alumni classes added to the nine primary), with over 200 individual rides needing to be scheduled.

The riders then need to be split into the various classes within their division. For example, in the Oct. 31 show’s Novice Over Fences division, six different classes of six-to-seven riders each were necessary in order to accommodate the number of competitors. Once the size and number of classes is known, the next step is to make the “draw,” or list of horses that riders will use in each class. While having a horse for every rider is paramount, there is also concern for the workload on the horses.

“You must consider what horses are appropriate for each level, since not all horses can handle beginners or jump around the open course height,” said Witherwax. “You must also consider how much is fair for each horse to work in a day. We have a number of horses who could do practically any division, but it would be unfair for us to ask them to do all 30 classes.”

In addition, contingency plans must be made in case a horse, for whatever reason, must be pulled from the competition.

“In each class you must provide one horse for each rider in the class, in addition to two alternates,” said Witherwax. “The alternates are there in case the show stewards decide to pull a horse who they deem an unfair draw based on their actions, or a horse become injured, the riders will already have predetermined horses to move on to.”

While the assignment of horse and rider within the draw is random, the choice of horses within a class is another advantage for the show host, since they are provided most of, if not all of the mounts for the show. Horses can be assigned that Geneseo’s point rider is familiar with.

After being moved around on paper, the horses need specific physical preparation on the week of the show. Each team member is assigned “grooming horses” which need to be properly prepared so that a simple spot cleaning can be performed before they go into the ring.

“The grooming includes pulling their manes (a process of pulling out the long hairs on their neck to make it short and even), clipping the hair around their face and feet so they look well managed and show ready rather than shaggy,” detailed Witherwax.

All of the tack for the horses (bridles, girths and saddles) must be also be extensive cleaned so that they are spotless in appearance and supple in feel for the riders on show day.

While the host team gains the advantage of riding on familiar horses, the etiquette of the sport holds that information about each mount and their habits are made available to the visiting teams.

“Each year we must update our ‘Horse Books’ that we give out to each school to add in the new horses and take out ones who are no longer showing,” said Witherwax. “Most schools just give out a list of each of their horses with a quick tip, but we put together an entire book with a picture of the horse, what divisions they are to be used in, and some helpful suggestions on how they like to be ridden.”

In addition, on show day, it is not uncommon for riders from other schools to consult with Geneseo riders or Coach Sanford for advice on the horse they will ride.

The Horse Book is not the only publication prepared for the show. Show Books are also created, with a listing of the schedule of classes, riders assignments, etc., similar to a typical game program. There’s a number of IHSA required advertisements, as well as ads that team members sell to offset the cost of show expenses such as award ribbons and the hiring of the judge. The Show Book for the Oct. 31 event numbered 36 pages.

The facility preparation for the show is extensive as well. Prior to last season, the Knights trained at Leg Up Stables, but competed at nearby Rolelu Stables. This made show hosting logistically tougher, due to the number of items, including horses, that needed to be transported, as well as the fact that setup was done in a shorter timeframe close to the show date. With last year’s opening of the indoor facility at Leg Up Stables, team members now have more lead time to accomplish the necessary tasks.

Still, the list is long. The jumping course, unique to each show, needs to be set up and jumps will often need to be repainted or redecorated in order to keep the course looking fresh. For this season’s opening weekend, the unprecedented decision was made to hold Saturday’s show outside and Sunday’s inside, which necessitated the building of two separate jumping courses.

For the cavernous indoor building, basic cleaning needs to be done. “For example, the interior walls need to be swept down as the dust from the ring will actually build up on the surface,” said Witherwax. “We want the building to look as nice as possible.”

The day of the show is busy as well, with current team members and alumni performing many tasks during the competition, which will typically run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Specific roles are assigned to a “Ring Master” and two “Back of the Barn Managers.”

“The main job for the Back of the Barn Mangers is to organize the barns the day of the show, making sure horses are coming in early enough to be immaculately turned out, tacked up and to the mounting arena a class or two before they are due to show,” explains Witherwax. “The Ring Master runs the mounting arena, making sure the proper riders are getting on the proper horses, the horses needed for the next class are ready and waiting, and as riders are entering the ring in the proper order for their over fences classes. They are extremely important to keeping the show moving in a timely fashion.”

For the first two shows, seniors Grace Floros and Jenelle Wallace were the Back of the Barn Managers, with Floros and sophomore Tessa LiVoti handling the role for the Nov. 7 show. Junior Jillian VanBrunt was the Ring Master for all three shows.

The horses require the most attention on the day of the event. Each has to be assigned a handler, who get the horses ready and initially bring them to the mounting arena, where they assist the rider in mounting. From there the handler will lead the horse and rider to the ring. VanBrunt tackled the challenging role of organizing all of the horse handlers in addition to her Ring Master duties.

“Setting up who will handle which horse is a Jenga game all in itself to figure out how to make sure every horse has a handler since we have approximately 40 horses showing and only about 20 girls available to handle,” describes Witherwax. “The person setting this up also makes a card for each horse listing the classes they are entered in, and a chart detailing which horses are in which classes to keep the handlers and the back of the barns organized.”

Geneseo team members who are competing that day are also counted on to assist in the handling, although their schedules are adjusted in order to give them time to prepare for their event.

“Obviously when you are getting ready to show or are actually in the ring showing you are not working, but before and after everyone is expected to work hard," said Olin. "This year a couple of alumni watched one of our seniors hurry out of the barns in show clothes, ride in her class and get right back to managing the barns.

“It makes home showing harder because you have a lot on your mind other than your performance in the ring, but it also is what makes our team members so special—that they have the ability to go from behind the scenes to student athlete in minutes.”

While alumni riders often assist in handling, perhaps their key role is in the schooling of the horses. At certain points in the show schedule, horses that will be used in the subsequent events are brought out and ridden —“warmed up,” so to speak. The Knights competing that day are not allowed to school the horses until after they show, so the job tends to fall to former Geneseo equestrian members, some of whom travel from out of town to help out. Plus, there are times when judgment must be made as to whether or not a horse can be used that day and the alumni riders tend to be more experienced.

“A few of our alumni have particular strengths as riders that aren’t found in any team members,” explained Olin. “For instance, if one of our horses is acting up in schooling, Julianne [Pangal] is generally the one that deals with it.”

At the Oct. 31 Home Show, one of the mounts was indeed uncooperative for its handler during the schooling break and in this case, Lefkowitz was on hand and she quickly mounted to evaluate the horse. When it refused to behave for her, the horse was pulled from the competition and another substituted.

Alumni participation in equestrian extends into other areas. Witherwax notes that Geneseo’s equestrian alumni have been “extremely generous” in donating prizes for the Home Shows. First-place winners traditionally get a small gift with their ribbons, usually gifts such as cookies, socks, sunglasses etc., while High Point Team and Individual winners have received such items as bags, blankets, cookie cakes, or a collection of horse supplies and treats.” At the Oct. 31 show, Pangal donated pink breast cancer awareness water bottles, while Eschler contributed the Reserve High Point team prize for the show and Casey Williamson ’12 put up the prize for Sunday’s Reserve High Point team.

At the close of the competition, basic cleanup needs to take place, both for the facilities and the horses. With the Saturday-Sunday show schedule format, hosts are either preparing for a show the next day or making arrangements to travel to another school the next day. In addition, there are the usual amount of competition forms to complete, again the responsibility of team members.

“There is a large amount of show paperwork we must provide for each show and our show office,” detailed Witherwax. “These include point sheets to be posted, invoices, a report the show stewards must fill out on how the show ran and any issues they saw, waivers, add/scratch forms, etc.”

The question of why the alumni are so willing to return and volunteer their time is one that has been put to Olin, a 2015 graduate, more than once.

“I was recently asked by someone why I come back to school horses, considering the earliness of the morning, the weather, and how sore I am for the following few days,” she said. “The answer is simple: for everything that the equestrian team gave me, I would do anything to give back. Coach Sanford, her husband Jerry and my fellow past and present teammates have each taught me so much about not just riding, but being a better person; I can't say what my Geneseo experience would have been like without them.”

Rabb, who graduated in 2012, is in full agreement.

“The equestrian team was absolutely the best experience I had in my collegiate career, and that's saying a lot because I had a phenomenal academic experience as well. I made lifelong friendships on the team and Coach Sanford helped me grow immensely as an equestrian, and she also helped me grow personally and professionally.

“I can't think of a better way to give back to the coach and team that gave me so much than by helping with the college shows. Watching the next generations of teammates learn and grow from putting on the horse shows is an extremely rewarding experience.”

Brian Bennett is director of design and publications and is part of the Athletic Communications and Media Relations staff. Special thanks to Emma Witherwax, alumni Ashley Olin and Kristin Rabb and to parent Doug Lindsay for sharing his photos.