Ashley Noojin says it was only her first week on the job as Hammond School’s new clinical psychologist when a student named Katherine “Kat” Chrysostom came into her office. Kat had seen photographs on Ashley’s desk of her family with horses and asked if she would be the faculty sponsor for an equestrian club. Ashley agreed, and as Kat was leaving she turned and said, “One day we should start an equestrian team. There are schools that have them. Did you know?”
Ashley loved the idea of Hammond offering an equestrian sport, so she set about researching teams throughout the country and learned of the Interscholastic Equestrian Association that was flourishing in many states – but not in South Carolina. She quickly discovered that implementing a new sport – especially one that requires live animals – involves tremendous safety, financial, liability and facility considerations.
Joy McMillion, whose experience riding and showing has been at the local, state and national levels, was surprised when her daughter, Cody, came home from Hammond one day to announce that the school was contemplating starting an equestrian team and that she had volunteered her to be the western coach. Although she was hesitant, Joy was also excited. “This would have been such a fabulous thing for my friends and me to have had when we were growing up, and there was no way I would let this opportunity pass by my daughter and her equestrian friends.”
Cody McMillion, who now rides for USC’s Equestrian team, competed for Hammond’s team in western at the 2010 SCISA show. Photo Courtesy of Hammond School
Emma Phillips, who works with Tori Edwards to coach the Hammond Equestrian Team in hunt seat, says that she would have loved to have been involved in an equestrian sport while she was in high school. “I was always riding and competing individually, but it was separate from my school. I chose riding over getting very involved socially when I was in high school, but at Hammond the riders don’t have to choose. In fact, I love that they are recognized for their sport at pep rallies, even though it’s not a traditional sport.”
In 2008, Hammond officially became home to the first western team and the second hunt seat team in South Carolina. “Since that time we have helped many other schools’ teams become a reality,” says Ashley, whose 8th grade daughter, Ivey, is now on the western team.
Heathwood Hall Espicopal School, in fact, has recently developed its equestrian team and is already off to a strong start, with its first showing in October and plans to participate in the Hammond/Wilson Hall Show this month. Currently, there are 13 riders on the team. Heathwood hired Angela MacFawn and Adrianne Beasley to coach their middle and high school co-ed hunt seat team. Angela and Adrianne are professional trainers at Three Fox Farm in Blythewood, and they coach the University of South Carolina’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team, a student-run club team that, while not to be mistaken with the university’s NCAA team, is highly competitive. Adrianne credits the coaches at Hammond with helping develop the Heathwood team.
The sport that involves horses and riders, in fact, is fast becoming popular not only at private schools nationwide but at universities as well.
According to Boo Major, who is in her 14th season as head coach of USC’s Equestrian Team, their program was the second of its kind in the nation, added after a survey of female students entering as freshmen conveyed a 70 percent interest.
Before the women’s equestrian team at USC became an NCAA sport, there was just the equestrian club, and the club’s coach was the team’s coach the first year. For the second year, Boo, a Columbia native and USC alum, stepped in to lead the western and hunt seat teams. Her experience riding began when she was a little girl, and she eventually became a professional trainer before taking her “dream job” at her alma mater.
Today, Boo oversees her largest team yet of 40 riders, and she no longer goes it alone as coach. There is now an associate coach for the western team, Ruth Sorrel, and an assistant coach for the hunt seat team, Carol Gwin. In addition, three years ago USC decided to purchase a 26-acre facility in Blythewood that offers three arenas and has space for 26 horses. Previously, USC leased a facility, where the equestrian team practiced and hosted competitions.
Jordan Brown competes for USC’s team in reining. Photo Courtesy of USC Athletics
Students on the Hammond equestrian team train either at the facility owned by coach Joy McMillion or at facilities where coaches Tori Edwards and Emma Phillips work as professional trainers. Tori and Emma met at St. Andrews Presbyterian College, where they represented the school on its equestrian team.
The middle and high school girls who make up the Hammond Equestrian Team are required to practice regularly with a trainer and to attend regular team practices. They are also encouraged to attend as many private horse shows as possible in between competitions in order to enhance their riding abilities.
“Our goal is to come together as a team,” says Tori. “Our primary focus this year is bonding, and we believe winning will follow.”
Ivey Noojin competes for Hammond’s Equestrian team in western. Photo Courtesy of Hammond School
When Sara Garbowski, now a sophomore at Hammond, had to rebuild her riding skills after battling sicknesses from Lyme disease, she says her teammates were very encouraging. “They were very supportive of me, and my favorite memory last year was when our team received State Championship medals.”
Ellerslie McCue, an 8th grader at Hammond, says, “The team is always there after a bad ride or a great ride … to run up and give you a huge hug and to encourage you. This team is a family. We laugh a lot, ride together and love spending time together.”
Joy adds, “It is most important to remember that every rider, no matter her level, is a valuable part of the team. No team rider is more valuable than the next. It takes a team effort to earn points to advance to the next level of competition.”
Team members work together at competitions, not only to encourage one another to earn points for the team but also to tackle whatever jobs are necessary. At the National Collegiate Equestrian Association level, only 20 of a team’s 40 members compete at each event. The remaining team members are either designated as alternates, or they pitch in to tackle the myriad jobs that are necessary, such as grooming, tacking and warming up the horses.
Both the horse and the rider must be in excellent physical shape to endure a grueling nine-month practice and competition schedule. Hammond encourages students to work out in order to stay physically fit, while USC requires their team members to lift weights and practice yoga. “It’s all about equitation, the positioning of the rider and the horse … their strength and fluid movements together,” says Tori.
Competing as an equestrian for a school or university team is different from entering private horse shows. Riders do not ride their own horses. Instead, they draw a number for a random horse that the host school offers for the event.
Kelsey Hart competes for USC in equitation. Photo courtesy of USC Athletics
“When you know you’re going to be riding a horse you’ve never saddled before,” says Adrianne, “there’s a whole other stress and challenge level to that.” Equestrians generally have grown up showing their own horses at competitions.
“The whole trick is to be able to sit on a horse for a few minutes before the competition starts and to figure that horse out,” says Boo. “To know what needs to be fixed and what can’t … to know what to hide about the horse and to make it all look easy, that’s the trick. These girls get more seasoned the more horses they ride and the longer they ride.”
Cody McMillion, now a freshman on the USC team, says that her experience riding with the Hammond team prepared her for the format of riding unfamiliar horses. She adds, “I grew up riding all the horses we had, but the nerves that come with going into an arena to show on a horse I’ve never ridden are totally different from the nerves associated with riding a two-year-old horse for the first time.”
Boo says that this past year the majority of riders in the USC team were new to the team. This year, there are 28 returning riders.
“We’ll be competitive overall,” adds Boo, who travels extensively in the spring evaluating and recruiting the nation’s top equestrians. “Our goal is to win the national championship.”
Joy, too, has set her sights high. “Our goal is to shoot for the top. We still have the same basic group of riders and they are fired up to return and challenge top honors. We dream big and work hard so all things are possible.”
Carolyn Curcio competes for USC’s team in over fences. Photo courtesy of USC Athletics