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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.

  • AlexanderYpsilantis

    Fascinating article, Ms. Niemeier. This is an activity that doesn’t get much exposure and needs to get more. We used to own horses when I was growing up in Michigan and I did a lot of riding, informally. Would have loved to have participated in a sport like this but it wasn’t offered when I went to college. Let’s see an update when the team competes at their next meet in Plymouth, Michigan. By the way, has their been any interest to form a Polo team at Hillsdale College, as a club or intercollegiate sport? Does the school own it’s own horses or do they rent them from Premier Equestrian Center in Hudson?