Tritons Ride Past Money Woes

    The UCSD equestrian team is definitely not your everyday squad, and most would agree that falling off, or being fallen on by a 1,500-pound horse, is greater than your average sport liability. This is a team of strength and endurance, not only physically, but also in the equestrians’ ability to continue pursuing their love of horse showing despite many challenges.

    Courtesy of Monica Wolfe
    The UCSD equestrian team’s impressive performances in the IHSA’s English- and Western-style regionals in early March earned it fourth and second place finishes, respectively.

    Yet in the midst of all its obstacles, the Tritons managed a fourth-place spot in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association’s English regionals and second in the Western regionals. The team sent five riders to West Coast Zones Championships in Sacramento, Calif., and one to Pennsylvania for nationals, where the rider placed sixth out of the top 18 riders in the nation.

    Like many other club teams, recognition is always an issue for the equestrians. In fact, most students don’t know that the team exists.

    “I don’t think we are really recognized as a sport,” junior English open rider Cindy Caron said. “I really think that most people think we’re just a big joke.”

    Funding is also problematic. Riding lessons can cost $40 or more per session, and the costs of caring for horses, uniforms and traveling for away tournaments are huge. In addition, locally hosted shows require shipping horses from different schools and providing food, judges, announcers and space — often adding up to more than the average college student can afford.

    The monetary aspect affects many other areas of the team, including the ability to maintain a coach. Since coaches serve on a voluntary basis and are not paid for their instruction, the team has been unable to keep a coach for more than a year, aside from their current Western-style coach Gale Willis, who has been with the team for two years and also runs her own training service.

    “The lack of an English[-style] coach this year was a big deal, so the team had to come together to help each other out at shows,” this year’s No. 6 nationals rider sophomore Sarah Zaides said. “More experienced girls went out of their way to help the newbies get on, polish boots and literally ‘coach’ from the rail.”

    Also, unlike their top competitors UCLA and Cal Poly Pomona, which have access to horses and stables for everyday practices, the less financially fortunate UCSD team has a harder time arranging and paying for its practice time. The difficulty in setting up carpools and times to fit everyone’s schedule to drive 25 minutes to the barns in Del Mar has made practices rare. While other schools have more school support, UCSD riders often take advantage of local trainers who offer lessons in exchange for work at their stables.

    Even with all these difficulties, the team refuses to give up on a deeply rooted passion. Caron first started riding at the age of five in France, and started competing in French horse shows when she was 10.

    “Coming from my European jumper background, I tend to control my horse through every movement and cut turns to go as fast as I can, when the point of IHSA horseshows is to look pretty and make it seem like riding horses is easy,” Caron said. “Because I can’t ride the way I used to, it gives me more will to compete.”

    One very different aspect of the IHSA competitions is “catch riding,” in which the hosting region provides randomly assigned horses to each rider.

    According to sophomore Laura Erickson, this luck-of-the-draw element requires a great deal of trust between human and animal.

    “Watching your horse warm up is key in trying to figure out the horse’s rhythm before the match,” she said. “It’s more based on your own ability and horsemanship because you just have to deal with what you get.”

    The competition process’ two categories, Western and English, require different cadences and ways of holding the body. In English, riders wear UCSD solid-colored jacket uniforms, while in Western competition, attire consists of fun hats and frilly shirts. Within three skill levels are different classes known as flat — open-ground trotting and cantering — and fences — jumping over fences ranging from 2 feet, 3 inches to 3 feet, 3 inches tall.

    The first-place rider down to third place receives seven, five and four points, respectively, and each show has a “point rider,” which is chosen in secret by the coach, whose points count toward the overall team score. Each team must score 35 points to qualify for the Zones Championship competition.

    This year, Western riders junior Lindsay Minor and senior Alicia Cunningham placed third, sophomore Laura Erickson came in fourth, sophomore Monica Wolfe placed eighth and one English rider, Zaides, hit second at the Zones Championship.

    Zaides’ subsequent trip to nationals represented the culmination of the equestrian team’s efforts. Zaides was the sole Triton rider. Knowing she would be facing stiff competition, Zaides doubled her efforts and endured a rigid training regimen.

    After arriving at the competition, Zaides was a bit awestruck by her surroundings, but was able to quell her fears.

    “All these riders had huge banners, elaborate outfits and lots of team members for their support, and I had my mom, brother and boyfriend,” she said. “I started to get nervous, having never ridden in front of so many people before, [but] right before it all went away and I started tuning in.”

    Zaides’ focus prevailed with a sixth-place finish, well within her goal of placing in the top 10. Her story reverberated throughout the UCSD squad, which hopes that more riders will follow in Zaides’ footsteps.

    Following her whirlwind experience at nationals, Zaides offered some inspirational words to her comrades.

    “Now I know why I sacrificed all those Friday nights and put in all the work,” she said. “[Nationals] was one of the best moments of my life.”

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