Hillsdale College eques­trian has already seen success this year as it pre­pares for regionals. (Photo: Hillsdale Eques­trian | Courtesy)

When freshman Marina Bone browsed through her pic­tures from this semester’s eques­trian com­pe­tition, she realized her team was doing Hillsdale College proud, right down to their ribbons.

“The colors of ribbons we win are always red, white, and blue — for first, second, and fourth places,” Bone said. “We always think that’s funny, because it’s so Hillsdale. It just happens to work out that way, but there’s a couple pic­tures of us like that, where we look very American and very Hillsdale.”

Bone is the lone freshman on a six-woman eques­trian team that has brought home plenty of ribbons from their four meets this fall — putting them in a promising position for their next two chances to qualify for regionals next semester.

At their last meet in Albion, Bone won 1st and 2nd places in her jumping and flat course events, respec­tively, con­tinuing a trend from throughout the season. Junior Genevieve Chiara placed fifth in her flat course class, a victory that gives her enough points to have a chance at regionals in the spring.

For the unini­tiated, the moving parts of a eques­trian show can be dizzying, but Chiara described the point of all events in the meets as a test of riders’ show­manship.

“You’re getting judged on your own equi­tation or rider ability,” Chiara said. “You need 36 points, which you earn by placing, to point up into a new division, and also to qualify for regionals.”

Riders can’t lean on their rela­tionship with their horse in proving their show­manship; the horses are chosen by elec­tronic draw.

This is one of the sport’s most sig­nif­icant chal­lenges, head coach Danielle Cole said.

“They’re not allowed to pick up the reins until they break the ring of the show arena,” said Cole, who has coached the team for five years. “That can be intim­i­dating. They have to learn to ride any­thing and every­thing, because every horse is a little bit dif­ferent, which is a chal­lenge at any level.”

Preparing for the unex­pected takes up much of their time in their weekly lessons at Cole’s horse barn, Premier Eques­trian Center in Hudson, Michigan.

“Lessons involve a lot of trou­bleshooting and drilling so things that went wrong in the last meets won’t happen again. We do a lot of ‘if-then’ sce­narios: If some­thing happens at a meet, how will you respond?” Cole said. “The lesson program is very tai­lored to the indi­vidual student and the things they struggle with.”

It is this per­sonal lesson time — and the chance to compete as much as pos­sible — that brought both Bone and Chiara to Hillsdale.

“The team size is unique to Hillsdale com­pared to Grand Valley and Uni­versity of Michigan and other large teams where there are 20 to 50 people on the team,” Bone said.

Bone, who has been riding since she was 5 years old, started in the “novice” class, a few levels of com­pe­tition higher than Chiara, who started in the “beginner” class after coming to Hillsdale with expe­rience in dressage, a dif­ferent form of English riding. But the tran­sition has been a fruitful one; she said each form of riding develops dif­ferent skills. Like other members of her team, she has been able to advance through levels of com­pe­tition quickly because of the arena expe­rience that the small size of the Hillsdale team.

“Because our team is so small, you get to ride every show, which gives you a chance to point up quickly,” Chiara said. “We compete against basi­cally every school in Michigan: Michigan State, Uni­versity of Michigan, Central, Western, as well as smaller schools like Adrian and Albion. At those bigger schools, they don’t ride every week because there are so many people on the team. One of the shows this semester, we were ranked fifth out of 10 or 15 teams there. That’s awesome for a team with only six riders who only compete in three divi­sions. To be able to get that many points is really sig­nif­icant.”

Chiara said that besides advancing to regionals, another goal for the year is building the team for next year by encour­aging people to take the one-credit class the college offers — whether or not they have time and interest in com­peting.

“We do a lot of fundraising and other things on campus, but at the same time, we still get a lot of, ‘Oh, we have an eques­trian team?’” Chiara said. “We know there are more riders at Hillsdale, but they’re sur­prised to find out that you don’t need a horse or a bunch of other equipment to be on the team.”

But as they prepare for their final meets, the team’s focus is on earning those red, white, and blue ribbons.

“I expect we’ll have several team members qualify for regionals,” Cole said. “You need 36 points to qualify, and everybody is well on their way. Actually, I’ll be sur­prised if everyone doesn’t qualify for regionals.”

Some riders have their sights set even higher; if one of them places in the top two at regionals, this year’s team could be the first to send a team member to “zones,” the level of com­pe­tition before nationals.

The eques­trian team will travel to Wil­low­brook Farm in Ply­mouth, Michigan, Jan. 20 and 21, for their next meet, hosted by the Uni­versity of Michigan.