Name the most physically and mentally challenging, adrenaline-rushing, and potentially dangerous sport at BU. Did you say equestrian? If not, perhaps you should think again.
“Riding is not like any other sport where you just play with a bunch of other kids,” says Lily Zarrella (CAS’13), captain of the BU equestrian team (BUET). “Your teammate is this living, breathing animal that you can’t talk to and you have to figure out a way to communicate with. The relationship that you have with the horses is unique. They’re not pets; they’re athletes.”
Equestrian may not be a high-profile club sport, but it’s been thriving at the University for more than 20 years. Coach Phyllis Cervelli has led BUET all of that time out of her Holly Hill Show Stable, in Hanover, Mass. She’s taken at least three individuals and one team to the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association national championships. This year’s team placed 3rd out of 11 schools in the region, coming in behind Tufts and Stonehill College. Two riders, Meghan Kaupp (SMG’15) and Sarah Broadbent (CAS’16), will attend nationals in Harrisburg, Pa., the first week in May.
“We’re actually a really good team,” Kaupp says, “and no one knows about us.”
No one at BU anyway. But at competitions the team gets plenty of respect. On a frigid morning in late March at Dry Water Farm, in Stoughton, Mass., the scents of hot chocolate, horse manure, and hay mingled in the open barn as BUET members prepared for their final competition of the season. They huddled in the observation area along with other teams and rugged spectators, many wrapped in blankets and hunkered into camping chairs for the long day ahead.
Before the competition began, officials from the host stable warmed up the horses in the ring—partly to accustom the one-ton beasts to the course and partly to allow riders to observe their new steeds. Horses and riders are matched at random so no one has an unfair advantage.
“The biggest thing for us is learning to do a skill set that we can transfer to other horses,” says Kaupp. “We could get anything from a small pony to a huge draft horse” during a competition.
That places the onus on riders to figure out their horse, and fast. “It’s all about feel,” says Zarrella, who was named Captain of the Year by the region’s coaches. “You don’t know until you get on.”
Once they’ve been assigned horses, competitors review cheat sheets describing how their “teammate” prefers to be ridden. At the Stoughton competition, for example, Fred appreciated that his rider “carry a crop, but not use it.” And Tillie liked “a soft ride” and “hates tight reins.”
Riders in the fences competitions, who jump over low-slung hurdles on their mounts, memorize the course and then walk it to calculate how many strides their horse should take between each fence. “We don’t really just steer over the jump and hope we make it,” says Carly Corbacho (SMG’15), an experienced rider who just missed qualifying for the nationals. “We plan it out perfectly.” The whole point is “to make each look exactly the same.”
Zarrella says riders are judged by position, control, and “how pretty we can make it look” in their identical tan riding pants, dark navy jackets, polished black riding boots, and black helmets.
But here’s the clincher: riders have to do all that while looking like they haven’t moved a muscle.
Throughout the morning in Stoughton, riders and their horses jumped, trotted, cantered, came to full stops, and reversed directions in various events without giving an apparent visible or audible signal—although plenty of instruction was being exchanged. Making this fluid performance look effortless, of course, requires enormous effort, as well as physical strength (forged through hours at the gym and at the stables) and an instinctive “feel” for a horse.
The instruction flows from rider to horse through such things as a gentle whisper or the pressure of riders’ legs, hands, and seat. “All the aids that the riders use are supposed to be very subtle,” says Cervelli. “Any combination of your natural aids is what makes the horse do exactly what you want.”
Judges watch, hawk-like, as riders jump individually over fences or compete “on the flat” by walking, trotting, or cantering in a group at advanced, intermediate, and novice levels.
“Each judge looks for something different,” Cervelli says. “It’s more the general impression the rider makes, which can be different on certain days if you have a horse that you don’t get along with.…It’s the reason why nobody wins all the time.”
But, the riders say, there is a widespread belief that judges prefer a certain type of rider: male.
“Boys are loved in riding because it’s such a female-populated sport,” says Corbacho. Luckily for BUET, the team had at least one male rider in Stoughton—Daniel Herbick (COM’15), who competed in the novice flat event.
Scoring is complicated. As Cervelli explains it, each school gets a point card with eight levels—from open fences to walk trot. Coaches pick a team point rider in each level, and immediately after each event, judges announce the first through sixth place riders, who earn points by ranking. Those who aren’t riding for team points still tally individual points and play defense, meaning they try to win big points to keep other teams’ point riders from grabbing them.
Broadbent took first place in her intermediate fences class at Stoughton and scored seven points for her team. She also counted those points toward her individual season tally. Riders who earn 36 points in a season automatically qualify for the regional competition, even if their team does not.
BUET’s more experienced riders learned to ride before they entered elementary school. They share stories of concussions and broken ankles or collarbones from being tossed from a testy horse. And it can get worse. In June 2012, Time magazine reported that 12 professional riders died between 2007 and 2008. The sport’s death toll led officials to question whether equestrian should be included in last year’s London Olympics. (It was.)
During the warm-up at the Stoughton competition, an eerie silence fell over the crowd when one horse bucked and minutes later tossed its rider to the ground. She was fine, but the incident prompted officials to ask the crowd to keep their voices down.
Kaupp has had her share of injuries, but that doesn’t keep her from the animals she loves. “There’s something about them that just makes your day better,” she says. “I get really excited about training a horse. When you break through to somehow get this 2,000-pound animal to do what you want, it’s really rewarding.”
The BU equestrian team holds tryouts at the beginning of fall and spring semesters. All levels of riders, from beginners to advanced, are welcome. For more information, contact the club via Facebook.
This story was originally published on April 22, 2013.