"My love for horses started when I was very young," said Sutherlyn Hollabaugh, a freshman. "I love the sense of security my horses give me: They never judge me, they usually never let me down in the show ring, and they're the best listeners. They've also brought some amazing opportunities into my life."
The tradition of riding on horseback dates back as far as 4200 BC. Horses were recognized for their usefulness in hunting, transportation, farming, warfare and, eventually, sport, more than as the riding companions of today. Native Americans shared with early settlers the importance of horses and horseback riding, as well as their respect and affection for the animals, instilling a love for these strong, beautiful animals.
Fast forward to present day, and we see that love and respect continue to grow. Today's horse owners keep the animals for a variety of reasons: their own pleasure, economic reasons, to compete, or simply love of the animal.
Equestrian Club began in fall 2009 at Venango Campus after two students who went on a recreational trail ride decided to bring their passion for horses to their school. A year later, a student at Clarion's main campus expressed interest in competing.
"It was a simple matter of combining the two campuses and utilizing club memberships to fund activities," said Dalyann Fuller, advisor of Equestrian Team and Equestrian Club. "From this humble beginning, the team was formed."
Students who are only somewhat familiar with horses, or those who have never been
around horses, can join Equestrian Club and will learn basic rules for standing and
walking around the animals, as well as appropriate ways to pet or touch them. Members
then become familiar with brushing, cleaning, patting down, bridling and saddling
the horses, and from there can move on to riding in the paddock or on the trail.
Those who become proficient in riding can become members of the team.
Equestrian Club meets at the Nicewonger Ranch, which provides facilities and three
horses for Clarion students' use. Students can take lessons with Western or English
coaches and can attend shows.
Hollabaugh was already a seasoned rider when she joined the club and team.
"Coming into my freshman year at Clarion University, I had already had three years under my belt with the Grove City Area Equestrian Team. My coach, Tammy Braham, had been pushing me to go to Clarion since the day I started as a (high school) sophomore," Hollabaugh said. Hollabaugh decided that attending Clarion would best serve her academic and equestrian goals and would allow her to remain under Braham's instruction.
The Equestrian Team has 13 members. Seven students compete in Western, three in English, and three combined.
Western riders compete at many shows throughout the year where they are judged on the rider's seat, position, posture, position and action of hands and legs, as well as ability to effectively cue the horse to the required moves in a way that is as invisible as possible.
Western competitions have origins in the early West and frontier rodeo shows, and elaborate clothing, including chaps, western shirts and hats, is worn. Competitors earn points for how well they interact with their horse in the ring and how well they portray a confident Western rider.
English riders, which make up the majority of riders throughout the U.S., hone their skills in the tradition of European riding and hunting practices that tend to be more precise and measured.
An English rider's uniform consists of boots, riding pants, blazer and English helmet. It does not deviate from tradition.
The cost of participating in this sport can be considerable, but Hollabaugh said many factors outweigh the cost.
"The bond that I have built with my teammates, coaches and advisor is at the top of the list. I have had the privilege of working with many great individuals on a few different teams, but none of them are as great as the Clarion Equestrian Team. In just a semester-and-a-half of knowing them, I feel like I grew up with them," Hollabaugh said. "I also think that just the overall thrill of showing has to be at the top of the list. Having the opportunity to be an open rider as a freshman is not only an honor, but a thrill. I get to compete in both the reining and the horsemanship and get to experience a huge rush every time I step into the arena."
At Clarion University more than 370 other colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada, International Horse Show Association-affiliated equestrian teams and clubs are thriving.
Clarion's competition zone includes 15 schools: Allegheny College, Bethany College (West Virginia), California University of Pennsylvania, Clarion, Edinboro University, Grove City College, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Mercyhurst University, Penn State Behrend, St. Vincent College, Seton Hill University, Slippery Rock University, University of Pittsburgh, Washington and Jefferson College, and West Virginia University.
Each college or university team hosts at least one show per year. Shows range from $4,000 to $8,000 in cost, which includes renting horses and a facility, medical coverage, judges and other logistics. Entry fees help to cover the costs, as does program advertising and university support.
IHSA has eight levels of competition, from beginner (walk/trot) to fence jumping. The goal of the IHSA is to provide collegiate riders of all skill levels the ability to participate and compete.
Riders must put in for hunt seat (a forward seat based on the tradition of fox hunting), be competent in walk/trot and be approved by the coach before they can compete at the more difficult levels. The coach determines the levels at which riders compete. Up to 16 horses and riders can be in the ring competing at one time, so the ability of riders to control their horses is of the utmost importance.
Although many students own horses, they can only compete at IHSA events on horses provided by the school hosting the show. Horses are trained at the different levels in which they may compete. Older and slower horses are trained for beginner levels, and faster, more aggressive horses are trained for expert levels.
It's essential that riders train with several different horses with different skill sets and temperaments to better prepare them for the horse draw they get at the shows.
Prior to competition, horses are schooled at their level of competition for the day and allowed to run through the paces so riders can observe them and determine the horses they'd like to get in the draw. Riders note a horse's height, coloring and use of legs.
Clarion Equestrian Team members are not just talented when it comes to riding – they're also academically successful. Competitive riders and club members maintained an overall academic average of 3.2 in 2016. Four student-athletes were named to the IHSA Honor All Academic First Team with GPAs of 3.8 or higher, and four were named to the Second Team with GPAs of 3.5 or higher.
Still, the team finds time to give back to the community. Since 2011, riders have participated in 15 events throughout the area to promote the team and support various organizations, including Venango Area Riding for the Handicapped Association.
This year, the team is focusing on Down syndrome awareness. When Clarion hosts the Western show this fall, they plan to highlight the brother of a rider. The brother, despite having Down syndrome, has shown at the AQHA Congress, garnering kudos as reserve champion, top five and top 10. He has also participated in 4H, earning state top five, and is a district and county champion. He has also received multiple EWD high points and reserve high points.
As the team has grown and matured, the accolades have grown with them.
Over the 2015-2016 season, the team earned two High Point Team ribbons and four High Point Team Reserves. The most recent High Point Team wins came when the Western Equestrian team won Feb. 11 and 12 at West Virginia University.
"Every time that we win high point team or even reserve is such a rush, and I know it can only get better from here," Hollabaugh said.
Individual honors have included: three High Point Riders, three High Point Rider Reserves, 15 riders qualifying for regionals, one winning the Zone 2 Region 5 Regional champion, two Regional runners-up, four 3rd places, one 5th place and one 6th place. An individual won High Point Rider Reserve and High Point Rider at a February competition.
Two Western riders reached the Semifinals with one winning a 6th place ribbon, and an English rider received a 6th place ribbon at the 2016 Zone Championships last April. This 6th place ribbon placed her in the top 48 riders nationally in her class.
"This is a remarkably talented group of young people. I am honored to be the team's advisor, not only because they are winning ribbons, but because they are hard-working, honest, reliable and self-motivated," Fuller said. "These are definitely some of the most intelligent and genuinely thoughtful individuals that I have had the pleasure of knowing."
In addition to advising Equestrian Team and Equestrian Club, Fuller is coordinator of intramurals, recreation and club sport at Venango Campus.