Equestrian Team welcomes riders in tryouts

Huntingburg, Ind. freshman Claudia Gasser rides one of WKU’s horses during equestrian team tryouts Tuesday, Aug. 30 at the WKU Equine Unit. Riders of all levels were welcome to tryout, the team accepts members of all skill levels, from beginner to advanced. Kathryn Ziesig/HERALD

Emma Austin

Horse whinnies and human chatter echoed in WKU’s Equine Unit on Tuesday afternoon as students gathered for the annual Equestrian Team tryouts. Hopefuls lined up across the edge of the arena, tacking up their horses in preparation to demonstrate their riding skills.

Team members are selected through tryouts at the beginning of every fall semester. WKU’s team competes throughout the year at multiple horsemanship and reining events across Kentucky and Tennessee, according to its website.

Jennifer Gill, equine professor and coach of the equestrian team, said students of all majors are welcome to try out.

Gill said students who want to join the team must have basic knowledge of horse care and safety, as well as the ability to control the horse in an arena.

Although each team member is required to have experience with horses, Gill said the competitions are set up to allow participants with anywhere from beginning to advanced skill levels. At the shows, riders are categorized based on skill level to prevent those with more experience from competing against beginners.

Boonville, Indiana, sophomore Ellen Rouch said one of the reasons she chose to attend WKU was because of its equestrian team. She said her mentors at home pushed her to consider participating in a college equestrian team because of the opportunity to improve her riding skills.

“It teaches riders the skills needed to ride any horse, not just the one he or she might have at home,” Rouch said. She added that she has seen immense improvement in her own riding skills since she joined the team.

Although the team welcomes riders with all different levels of experience, several members have been riding for most of their lives, including Rockport, Indiana, junior Rachel Bunner.

“I was raised riding horses,” Bunner said. “My mom and dad bred and raised foals, and would keep some and sell some.”

Bunner said she would ride the foals for a video after her dad trained them, to prove they were kid-safe.

“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “My horses are home to me.”

Rouch said the athletic ability required for riders is often underestimated by those with little knowledge about the sport, saying the athletes “just sit there.” Rouch explained that, like all sports, horse riding requires its own skill set and physicality.

“While competing, a rider must control the horse well while staying graceful and poised in the saddle, keeping a set form,” Rouch explained.

She said this feat requires the use of many muscle groups, as well as significant core strength, all the while atop a 1,000-pound animal with a mind of its own.

Gill said the team will be competing this year in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association shows. The association is founded on the principle that any college student should be able to participate in horse shows regardless of his or her financial status or riding level, according to its website.

The team practices at the WKU Agricultural Farm twice a week to prepare for competitions. Rouch said team members are also required to work 10 hours at the farm each semester in addition to grooming and caring for the horses.

“I love riding the horses we have on the farm,” Rouch said. “All have distinct personalities and tendencies, making each ride a unique experience.”

This will be Gill’s first year coaching the team, though she said she has over 15 years of experience competing in horse shows in Pennsylvania and New York. She said she feels prepared for the coaching position after her years of professional experiences riding and showing in the horse industry.

A second day of tryouts is scheduled on Friday, Sept. 2 from 1-3 p.m. Any WKU student is eligible to try out.

“We encourage all who are interested to contact Dr. Gill and set up an appointment to try out,” Rouch said, and she added that riding is an opportunity to “be physically active while working with amazing, talented animals.”

Reporter Emma Austin can be reached at 270-745-2655 and [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @emmacaustin.