There were many steeds in the Cowlitz County Fairgrounds’ horse arena this Saturday, but there wasn’t a rodeo in town: It’s an equestrian competition.
The local district of the Interscholastic Equestrian Association began its show Saturday morning in Longview, co-hosted by the West Longview riding school Longacre Stables (the other host was Rochester, Wash.-based Belmore Equestrian). The competition will continue Sunday.
Both high-school and middle-school riders from equestrian clubs as far away as Bellingham, Snoqualmie and Lake Oswego arrived in Longview to show off their skills.
Local trainer Donna Longacre of Longacre Stables said she had three riders showing in Saturday’s competition: middle-schoolers Vista Alleman and Aisley McLean and high-schooler MiKenzie Chatwin.
Longacre, who’s been coaching for around 35 years, said this weekend’s competition is a bit different than typical, as her riders will be riding “strange horses.” This means the rider doesn’t know what horse they’re going to compete with until the day of the competition.
“They don’t get much of a chance at all to warm up or get familiar with the horse,” Longacre said. “They have to be able to get on and get that immediate communication going between horse and rider.”
However, she didn’t seem too nervous about her riders’ ability to work with unfamiliar horses.
“Horsemanship hopefully is a universal language,” she said. “My particular riders ride a variety of horses at the barn, and they learn how to communicate with them a little bit through trial and error, and of course, through coaching.”
Aisley, 13, said there’s a good chance they’re already familiar with the local horses used in this weekend’s competition, meaning Longacre Stables’ riders get a bit of a home-field advantage.
“It should be a little bit better than the (competitions) up in Bellingham, because we know the horses more and we have more time to prepare for the horses we don’t really know,” the Kelso resident said.
According to Longacre, her riders’ first competition was in Battle Ground in September, and they travel to Lynden next month. If they perform well enough, the group will earn a ticket to regionals.
So how does one wow the judges at an equestrian competition? Longacre said riders must show balance, stable positioning and clear communication between the horse and the rider.
During competitions, riders must also follow an exact pattern of jumps for the horse to follow. A rider can be penalized and even eliminated if they forget that pattern.
Watching a competition almost feels like a tennis or golf match: The crowd (for the most part — there were a few crying babies and kids) goes quiet while observing a rider and her horse quickly trot around the arena and navigate the jumps. The only noises during the active part of a competition are the steed’s brisk clip-clop noise, grunting noises during every jump, and the occasional whinny from the stables.
Longacre said her riders log plenty of hours honing their equestrian skills.
“It’s hard for people to realize how much work these kids put in, muscle-wise, and to get the communication that they need to be able to hop onto a strange horse,” she said.
MiKenzie, 15, who’s been riding horses since she was three years old, said what she enjoys about equestrian competitions is “just riding and having fun.” The Longview resident said her family’s connection to the sport is what pushed her to join in.
“I watched my aunt ride horses and my cousins ride horses as I grew up, and I just fell in love with them and started wanting to do it,” MiKenzie said.
Meanwhile, Aisley is a relative newcomer to equestrian competitions, having participated for a year and a half. She said she was inspired by attending rodeos earlier in life and enjoys building connections with horses.
“I like ... having your own horse and being one with it. It’s just you and the horse,” she said.
Aisley added that she felt confident in her team’s chances at their home turf this weekend.
“I expect us to be way more prepared than the last show, because we’ve been working a lot,” she said.
Longacre seemed to simply enjoy being in a competitive setting.
“We’re tickled to be here.”