Horseback riding may seem like an individual sport, but since 2016, a group of local girls has formed a tight team around it.
“I love IEA for not only giving me an opportunity to compete more often, but (also for) bringing me into a tight-knit and kind community,” said team member Kristina Sumina, who completed eighth grade at Bullis Charter School in June.
Sumina is among the 28 girls who form the Interscholastic Equestrian Association team hosted by Westwind Community Barn in Los Altos Hills. They practice monthly and compete in regional horse shows. In their short history, Westwind riders have competed on regional and national levels.
In addition to their accomplishments in the sport, Westwind’s high school and middle school teams have formed strong bonds and learned foundational skills in working with horses, according to Torie Dye, co-coach of the team alongside Heather Franco.
“I’ve seen a lot of them kind of make friends with each other through the team, which is always fun to see,” Dye said. “And then kind of supporting each other as part of the same team.”
The IEA is a national organization that coordinates horseback riding competitions, culminating at the national level.
The season begins in September and ends in late spring. Barns across the United States host teams of middle and high school riders who practice together and travel to compete in regional horse shows, at which they vie for ribbons as individual riders or as a team.
Near the end of March, regional competitions serve as qualifications for zone finals; California, Hawaii and Nevada form Zone 10. A top-three placement at Zone Finals guarantees a spot at the national competition in Pennsylvania.
IEA emphasizes “putting kids on more of an even playing field,” Dye noted. Barns that host each show provide the horses and equipment; horses are assigned to competing riders by a random draw.
Only the top riders in each geographic zone qualify for nationals. In the 2018-19 season, Westwind IEA did not advance to nationals, but riders took home several fourth places at Zone 10 Finals. A wall inside Westwind Barn is fully swathed in a sea of ribbons from shows throughout the season.
Although the team missed this season’s national competition, several riders mentioned that they did improve due to their years practicing. In that time, they have also formed closed friendships within the team.
“I love how welcoming the entire team is … and has always been,” Sumina said. “I really feel like I can trust my entire team without any negative competition between us.”
Official IEA team practices take place the first Monday of each month during the season. Because competitions are based on luck of the draw, coaches Dye and Franco teach riders how to keep the horse under control and clearly communicate with it, “whether or not the horse is behaving,” according to Dye. For example, new riders first learn how to tell the horse to stop.
In competitions, riders can be paired with a compliant horse, but they may also have to compete on an uncooperative one – and that’s when the skills they have learned may be best put to use. Coaches may also ask for a re-ride, in which the rider recompletes the competition course with a different horse.
“The Westwind team is super spunky,” said Sara Eberle, a rising senior at Los Altos High School. “We always find a way to make the best of every event, even if it doesn’t turn out the way we want it to.”
IEA also exposes the girls to the equestrian world, which Mountain View High School rising sophomore Avery Martin is interested in entering professionally as a coach.
“I’m just getting to meet tons of different people, and riding tons of different horses gives me a lot of experience going into a career, possibly in riding horses, and training them, and just gives me a lot of experience with different horses and how to handle them,” Martin said.