Chattanooga Equestrians Share Their Love for Horses

Horsemanship Unbridled

Like any worthwhile pastime, equestrianism calls for horse-sized amounts of patience and discipline. But true hippophiles will tell you, it’s a deep, abiding love for horses that lies at the heart of their equine pursuits. Oftentimes, such passion leads equestrians and their four-hooved companions to competition arenas. Before crowds of spectators and panels of judges, they have the opportunity to showcase their skill and synchrony as horse and rider and – if they’re successful – return home adorned with ribbons and medals. The real reward of horsemanship isn’t found on a winner’s podium, however. It’s in the exchange of trust that happens every time horse and rider come together, and in the unspoken bond fortified by the humblest of moments. Here, you will encounter the stories of six local equestrians, each varying in age, discipline, and riding tenure, all firmly fixed in their love for horses.

By Olivia Halverson

 Photography by Sarah Unger

Love at First Ride

Ashanti Davis

Ashanti Davis was 4 years old the first time she ever rode a horse at a community event. That opportunity set her equestrian future into motion.

“I fell in love with horses that day and begged my parents to let me ride,” Davis recalls. Now, as a mature, wise-beyond-her-years 11-year-old, Davis is part of the riding program at Tri-State Therapeutic Riding Center in McDonald, Tennessee, where she trains and competes in the disciplines of dressage, hunt seat, and jumping. She’s been riding for two years and competing for one.

Davis’s innate love for horses hasn’t been the only force at work propelling her into equestrianism – she was a natural when it came to riding. Davis was advancing so quickly in private lessons that her instructor referred her to the program at Tri-State. Not long after, Davis competed in her first-ever Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) show, where she proudly took home first place. Presently, Davis is focused on refining her jumping skills and plans to compete in the upcoming Centerline Show Series.

When reflecting on the life lessons she has gained from her time riding horses, Davis calls to mind the virtues of responsibility and support. “I do several chores at the barn that require a lot of responsibility on my part,” Davis shares. She has learned the importance of having and giving support through her team of riders at Tri-State. “We support each other at every level during competition, at the barn, and beyond,” she says.

While shows and training sessions are big parts of Davis’s life, it can’t be all work all the time. “On off days, the horses get turned out for pasture time,” Davis says, adding that they also love cuddling, trail riding, and being groomed. Similarly, Davis’s idea of rest and relaxation is one that many of us can get behind – manicures and pedicures. When the polish has dried, Davis can likely be found at home playing with her little twin brothers, excitedly awaiting her next visit to the barn.

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Seeing Potential in the Unlikely

Stella Knoop

Stella Knoop is a bonafide, tough-as-they-come cowgirl with a big heart for underdog horses.

She’s been riding for 12 years and competing for six in the disciplines of western horsemanship, reining, breakaway roping, and jumping. She also gives riding lessons and hosts training clinics. At the young age of eight, Knoop was able to help transform a once dangerous, aggressive horse into a gentle lesson horse with guidance from her mom, Kimberly Knoop, and grandmother, Jennie Knight. She knew from then on that horsemanship was her specialty and working with troubled horses and wild mustangs was her calling.

In the years since, Knoop has worked with a variety of horses but considers LeDoux and Bucket her pride and joy. LeDoux is a 7-year-old mustang from the Shawave Mountains. “LeDoux is the love of my life,” Knoop shares. “I think he is the coolest horse, not only for his spunk or for his somehow perfect and luxurious hair, but also for his wild history.” Bucket, on the other hand, is like a puppy dog, according to Knoop. The 8-year-old quarter horse gelding “just wants to be loved on,” she says. “He’s also super smart and catches on to things quickly during training.”

While horsemanship has many joy-filled moments, the lifestyle comes with its share of hardships. This year, Knoop had to sell a horse with whom she had worked for years and shared many significant milestones. “The hardest part is the walk back to the barn with their halter in hand and not them,” Knoop shares. “But that’s business, and their absence leaves room for another special horse to fill that dark corner.”

Reflecting on her accomplishments as an equestrian, Knoop is most proud of the versatility of her riding. “I’ve been able to experience so many disciplines and events, and I still have more to learn,” she says. With so much knowledge behind her and a lifetime ahead of her, Knoop is sure to go far in her equestrian endeavors.

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The Horse Girl That Never Grew Out of It

Virginia Polley

Many can relate to the frustrated feelings Virginia Polley experienced as a young girl – completely enamored with horses, yet unable to afford one of her own.

“I was a horse-crazy little girl,” says Polley, “and I never grew out of it.” It wasn’t until adulthood when Polley had a horse-interested child of her own that she was finally able to fulfill her girlhood dream. “When my son was 4 years old (30 years ago), he began riding lessons,” Polley shares. “After I had watched a few, the instructor asked me if I’d like to try. I’ve never looked back since.”

Horse shows became a family activity for the Polleys – specifically, American Saddlebred Fine Harness and Pleasure Driving. It was the perfect family activity, according to Polley. “It gave something positive to everyone – the children learned discipline, sportsmanship, and animal care while having family time; I got exercise and confidence while getting to do something I’ve always wanted – be with horses.”

Nowadays, it’s just Polley in the competition arena while her husband cheers her on from the stands. She competes with two American Saddlebred mares – Shakin It Sister, 8, and Daring Heiress, 8. In addition to being the same age and breed, the two horses share a common fondness for physical affection. “Shakin It Sister is very jealous and stomps her feet when I groom the other horses,” explains Polley. “She is happiest when I am in her stall rubbing her.” Daring Heiress, on the other hand, is quite the hedonist. “She loves having her back rubbed a certain way,” says Polley.

After competitions, horse and rider both need a little reward. For Polley, that’s a nice glass of wine shared in the company of her animals. For the horses, a good rubdown and stall nap are in order. When she looks back on her horseback riding tenure, Polley recalls making it to the World Championship Horse Show several times as her greatest accomplishment. Looking toward the future, Polley’s horsemanship goals are simple: “Just keep doing it.”

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Ready for Anything

Megan Moser

Megan Moser has been riding horses for 10 years and competing for eight. Her horse, Primed and Ready (aka Ready), is a 16-year-old Arabian horse with a pretty comprehensive resume.

He raced for several years until he retired and became a jumper. When Moser came to own him, his versatility only broadened. The duo currently competes in a variety of disciplines through the Arabian Horse Association (AHA), including western horsemanship, western ranch riding, western dressage, and dressage. It’s clear that in 16 years of encountering new skill after new skill, Ready has never marred his namesake with a lack of eagerness.

Outside of competitions, Moser and Ready have a lot of fun together. “He’s a goofy horse,” she shares. “He loves to smile and give kisses and fist bumps.” For fun, the two will take trail rides down to the creek. “Ready loves to play in the water, and it makes me happy that he’s happy,” shares Moser.

After spending almost every day together for 4 years, it’s understandable that Moser and Ready have taken many lessons from one another. Moser has introduced Ready to a variety of new competition styles, while Ready has helped grow Moser as an equestrian. “Ready is not a push button horse to ride, but I love that about him,” she says. “Every ride, he teaches me something new, and I grow in my riding ability because of him.”

To further grow her skills as a rider, Moser occasionally shows different horses in International Equestrian Association (IEA) competitions. She’s been named the rider with the highest points in IEA dressage divisions for three seasons in a row. With Ready, Moser was named top 10 in ranch riding and ranch rail pleasure at the AHA Youth and Midsummer Nationals in 2021.

“Horsemanship is all about riding to the best of your ability, but I am learning that no one can be perfect,” says Moser. “We must learn from our mistakes and use them to grow.” With a mindset like that, it’s certain that the next time Moser encounters a challenge, she’ll be ready.

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A Profound Connection

Erin Rayburn

Erin Rayburn discovered her love for horses at the age of 6 when she attended a friend’s riding lesson. “It came so naturally to me,” she recalls. “I felt like I was made to work with horses, because the connection was profound and deep.”

Young Rayburn was clearly onto something, because now, horses are a part of her adult life on every level from personal to professional.

Rayburn has been riding for 30 years and competing for about 15 as a jumper through the grand prix level. Her horse Zen is an 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood. “He is so casual in nature, but always consistent and tries hard,” shares Rayburn. “He’s also kind of like an overgrown pony, always wondering what you have in your pocket and wanting to nibble on your hair whenever he can get a chance.”

In addition to competing and riding for pleasure, Rayburn has incorporated human/horse modalities into her therapy practice. As both an equestrian and a mental healthcare professional, she knows well the intellectual and emotional depth that can be achieved through a human/horse relationship. “Horses demand our awareness and honesty within ourselves in order to be able to partner with them affectively,” she explains. This profound dynamic of trust between horse and man makes equestrianism a powerful instrument of recovery.

In the past when she has come upon difficult times, Rayburn credits riding and training as the pathways through which she was able to rediscover her strength and clarity. These practices have also served as important reminders for her to slow down and be present. “When it comes to riding and training, we can become overly focused on the results,” says Erin. “If we don’t slow down every once in a while, we risk missing out on all the joy.”

Looking toward the future, Rayburn is building a riding facility at her farm and working on obtaining a certification in EQUUSOMA therapy. With so many great plans on the horizon, it’s likely that Zen will be stepping in from time to time with a sneaky nibble at her hair, gently reminding her to pause and seek joy – important lessons for life and equestrianism.

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A Passion That Spans Generations

Detha Yoder

Detha Yoder is one in a long line of equestrian champions in her family. Throughout her 46-year career of showing Tennessee Walking Horses.

Yoder has had the privilege of watching the tradition live on in the likes of her 6-year-old granddaughter Lexi Cofer, and in the new generations of horses born and bred from her own champion sires and mares. It’s a lot more than ribbons and medals preserving this generations-long family affair – it’s a love for horses that lives deep down in the soul.

Yoder is actively training and showing with eight horses in the disciplines of 2-year – 5-year-old amateur divisions, leadline, and western pleasure. “The horses have personalities like children,” says Yoder. For example, world champion The Mandalorian starts standing at attention when he hears Yoder’s voice. “Not because he’s glad to see me, but because he’s waiting for his peppermints,” she quips. Another of Yoder’s world champion horses, The Longmire, gets excited when he’s about to compete. “It’s like he’s as nervous as I am,” Yoder shares. “They are all unique, but all loved with my whole heart.”

When you’re working with that many horses, it’s important to have a strong support system. According to Yoder, her husband and parents are the blessings that sustain her through long hours of training, traveling, and competitions. And now, Yoder gets to see that same devotion to horses blooming in her granddaughter – another blessing, no doubt.

Looking to the future, Yoder’s foremost goal is to help her granddaughter win a world grand championship. “She began showing when she was 2 years old,” says Yoder. “Now, at the age of 6, she has already won two reserve grand championships.” As the two work toward this goal, Yoder will likely keep in mind the important lessons she learned from her first world champion horse, Private Benjamin (pictured below). “At 20 years old and with only 60 days of training, Benji placed third in the world grand championship – her last show before retirement,” Yoder recalls. “That day, Benji taught me to have faith in any situation and never give up on my goals.”

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