Jumping English-style

They make an odd sight on the sidewalk. Rising at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, the riders don their high black leather boots, jodhpurs, hunt...

They make an odd sight on the sidewalk. Rising at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, the riders don their high black leather boots, jodhpurs, hunt coats, and helmets and in this kit stride through Harvard's lightening dawn with leather riding crops in hand. The few fellow students passing them flash quizzical looks, or ask a joshing question: "What kind of party were you at?" The four riders, however, are not leaving a sadomasochistic orgy but going to a show--a horse show, to be precise.

Medical student Cecily Vanderspurt (left) and graduate student Jasna Vellovic ride in an equitation class. Top: a rider pats her horse. Middle: Chris Laumann '03, on 'Hanover,' practices good riding posture with a viewing mirror. Bottom: Riding coach Alyce McNeil with a student. All photos at Verrill Farm, Concord, Massachusetts. DECK for the story: The Harvard Equestrian Club can fly in the saddle.
Medical student Cecily Vanderspurt (left) and graduate student Jasna Vellovic ride in an equitation class.
Photograph by Rose Lincoln
Precision counts. The Harvard Equestrian Team is headed for a barn in Connecticut to compete in riding events scrutinized with exacting attention. "The judges look for small mistakes," says Colleen Donovan '02, the team's co-captain. "Like picking up the incorrect lead on the canter, having your heel in the wrong position as you move around a corner. If you go over a jump with the horse's legs on the wrong diagonal, you're out. English riding is a discipline, the way ballet is a discipline--and like any physical activity that is also an art."

As in figure skating, platform diving, or gymnastics, riders are judged for technique, grace, and form--the ability to create beauty. "There's a clean, seamless communication between the horse and rider. You move as a unit," says Donovan. "You're trying to perform all these difficult transitions while making it look like you're just sitting there." As one of the team's coaches, Alyce McNeil, puts it, "You want to feel like you're part of the horse."

That is the rider's challenge. Unlike diving or gymnastics, equitation depends on another willful living animal--several hundred pounds of horseflesh. Horses can become bored and grouchy, snap or bite. Unexpected sounds or sights like snakes, umbrellas, flapping pennants, or even their own shadows can "spook" them. Since they are herd animals hunted by predators, they have developed an impressive ability to see behind them, and may kick rearwards with fatal force, a convincing argument for not loitering behind a horse's derrière. More typically, once mounted, a restless horse may try to "take the ride away from the rider," in the words of Tara Dalton, another coach.

Horse shows test a rider's ability to control some of these innate equine traits. In a jumping event, for example, the final fence might purposely be lined up with the barn door, a sight that can elicit the animals' well-known tendency to speed up on the homeward tack. "They're forceful animals, and a lot of people are afraid of them," says the team's co-captain, Anna Fishko '02. "It feels great to communicate with this huge, unruly animal and get it to do what you ask. When I'm riding, I don't think about anything else."

 

The thrill and challenge of the saddle draw about 30 riders to this club sport, which is funded by the members. "It's an expensive sport, but the club is designed to welcome all comers," says their adviser, Elizabeth Gray, Ph.D. '74, senior associate secretary of the Board of Overseers, herself a "late-life beginner" who learned to ride seven years ago. Most members have never owned a horse. "Some people may never have been close enough to touch a horse," says Donovan. The introductory questionnaire assumes nothing, starting with questions like, "Have you ever seen a horse?" and only gradually working up to "Can you do flying lead changes?"

hand patting horse's head
A rider pats her horse.
equestrian riding alongside a building (reflection in building's window)
Chris Laumann '03, on "Hanover," practices good riding posture with a viewing mirror.
equestrian watching horses as a rider passes in the background
Riding coach Alyce McNeil with a student. All the photographs were taken at Verrill Farm, Concord, Massachusetts.
Photograph by Rose Lincoln
The equestrian club (www.hcs.harvard.edu/~horses/index.html), whose current incarnation dates from 1994, books six riding lessons weekly at Verrill Farm in Concord, Massachusetts. Five of these lessons focus on basic equitation technique, rather than fence jumping. Students groom, saddle, and ride horses owned by the stable and private owners who board their mounts there. The geldings and mares, including quarter horses and thoroughbreds, are mostly about 10 to 12 years of age, which McNeil compares to human teenagers. "They're not 'school horses,'" she says, referring to mounts that are docile to a fault. "So your skills improve by necessity. These horses don't respond unless you know what you're doing."

The Harvard team rides in the English style, a mode derived from the saddle, tack, and riding form used in English fox hunts. English is the predominant style on the East Coast. (Western-style riders use a different saddle, stirrups, bridle, and other tack.) "English riding is very precise," says Donovan. "Every move is calculated." Nearly all these moves involve communicating with the horse, something accomplished without crying, "Gee!" "Haw!" or "Giddyap!" Instead, English equitation teaches four "aids" to riding: in descending order of importance, they are one's legs, weight, hands, and voice. The next level of control invokes artificial aids: riding crop, spurs, and bat, a short crop used for jumping. Basic riding technique involves keeping heels down at all times to position one's weight properly in the saddle, a crucial factor in a sport so sensitive to balance. The head, however, stays up: "Don't forget the power of looking at your destination," said Dalton, admonishing a class.

Horse gaits are four in number. Walking, a gait of four beats, is the slowest. Faster is trotting, a two-beat gait that has diagonal pairs of legs moving together. Cantering, a three-beat gait in which the outside hind leg strikes the ground first, is quicker yet, and fastest of all is the gallop, another four-beat gait that has all four legs off the ground at the same time. College riders use only the three slower gaits, jumping fences at a canter. (In Olympic equestrian events, riders may gallop to save time between fences.)

College competition, sanctioned by the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA), includes fence jumping and flat-terrain events. At the outset, officials assign horses by drawing names from a riding hat. The draw randomizes the "horse factor" to focus the competition on the riders' skills. (Some horses are easier to ride, and a lucky entrant might get what Donovan calls a "push-button horse--you just think 'canter,' and he'll canter.") Then riders put the horses through various gaits and maneuvers. In jumping events, there'll be six or eight fences. "To do well, you want to be calm and collected," says Donovan. "You are thinking one or two fences ahead of the one you are going over--it's all planned out."

There are four or five horse shows each spring and fall. Shows have novice, intermediate, and open divisions; a rider who accumulates 35 points moves up to the next category. A novice course will have lower fences and no tight U-turns. Differences among riders are often so slight that there is no clear winner on the course. In this case, the judge will impose a further test--say, riding a figure-eight pattern and changing from a trot to a canter on the diagonal, or riding without stirrups. There can even be a pop quiz for competitors ("What is the average body temperature of a horse? What are the signs of horse colic?"). The winner gets a blue ribbon, followed in order by red, yellow, white, pink, and green ones.

Equine competition works on both an individual and team level. In every event, each college squad designates one of its riders as the "point" rider, whose score will count toward the team's total. Harvard competes in a region that includes Boston University, Endicott, Framingham State, MIT, Stonehill, Tufts, University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and Wellesley, most of which support riding as a varsity sport. Only a few of Harvard's riders compete in shows; the club typically enters four riders, while Tufts or Stonehill might field two dozen. "We place well in our classes, but we get beaten on depth," says Donovan. Anna Fishko adds, "The Harvard team is hopelessly underfunded and therefore hopelessly overmatched in competition."

Yet there can be surprises. This spring, Fishko won the regional championship for intermediate fences, qualifying for the zone finals at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a riding Mecca. There she came third, one place away from qualifying for nationals. (The last Harvard rider to go to nationals was C. Langdon Fielding '98, in 1996.) Fishko's standout performances were the outcome of years of riding, plus recent coaching at Riverwind Farms in Pembroke, an hour from Cambridge, where she and a few other advanced Harvard riders honed their skills this spring.

Instruction isn't cheap; each rider at Verrill Farm, for example, contributed $250 to $300 per semester for horse rental and eight to 10 lessons. Then there are show fees, travel costs, and equipment. "We've had issues with people not being able to buy new riding boots,"Fishko says. "Custom boots cost $200 or $300, and they do have to be these boots." While colleges with varsity teams may own several horses, Fishko has actually had to decline donations of horses, because there is no money to care for the quadrupeds, which cost $600 to $700 per month to board.

Riding is unlikely to gain varsity status at Harvard, at least in the near future. It is overwhelmingly a women's sport (25 of the 30 Harvard riders are female), and many other colleges promoted it to varsity status to help with Title IX compliance. But that incentive is lacking at Harvard, which has long been among the leading institutions in athletic opportunities for women. "It's hard to offer what the club would like to offer," says Gray. "We could have 50 riders without much trouble if they had transportation to the stable. In Cambridge, a car is not easy to come by." Meanwhile, those with the horsepower to get to the horses are enjoying their mounts. "We had a good time this year," says Fishko. "We enjoyed being the funny underdogs."

 

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