Chattanooga’s Young Equestrians
Young horse enthusiasts across the Tennessee Valley are competing in record numbers, and the result is that the equestrian community in Chattanooga has grown exponentially in the last two years. In addition to the formation of two Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) teams, the last two years have seen many top-notch young equestrians from our area roping in national achievements.
By Julianne Hale
So what is “equestrianism,” exactly? While rodeos or the Kentucky Derby may be the most prominent images of equestrianism in modern culture, the term is actually used to describe all manner of horse-related activities. “It’s anything equine,” says Denise Wright, director at the Tri-State Therapeutic Riding Center and coach of the Ocoee Equestrian Team. “So it includes any and all areas of the industry from breeding horses, horse racing, dressage, barrel racing, rodeo, trail riding, therapeutic horseback riding, equine-assisted learning programs, natural horsemanship [horse whispering], pony club, 4-H and more.”
Here’s a small peek into the lives of some of Chattanooga’s most accomplished young equestrians.
A rising senior at Baylor School, Lydia Kennedy says her love affair with horses began at the age of four, the year of her first riding lesson. At 10, Lydia’s passion took a serious turn when she grew thirsty for competition.
Today, Lydia competes in “eventing,” often described as an “equestrian triathlon.” The sport is comprised of three phases—dressage, in which horse and rider showcase their ability to perform a series of movements in an enclosed arena; cross-country, which consists of horse and rider galloping over natural terrain and jumping a variety of fixed obstacles; and show jumping, in which the horse and rider jump a series of stadium fences in an enclosed area.
At the eventing regionals in May, Lydia and her horse Dreamer placed fourth in the southern region, qualifying her for the September American Eventing Championship (AEC) in Fairburn, Ga. And this is after she just moved up from “novice level” to “training level” at last year’s championship.
“You have to know more technical stuff in training level,” she explains. “Levels are based on jumping height, technical movements and dressage. Making it to nationals this year was a huge accomplishment. I never thought I would make it my first year at training level.”
Lydia takes her training seriously, splitting her time between a local trainer who works with her in dressage, one from the Atlanta area who works with her in stadium jumping, and one from the Columbus area who is her all-around eventing trainer. She says she tries to spend time practicing every day.
“I’m hoping to take my horse now up to the next level (preliminary) this fall or possibly next spring. I’d also like to compete in my first one-star competition [higher level of difficulty due to the presence of international riders].”
Lydia also hears the War Eagle battle cry in her future. “I’ll probably go to Auburn and attend Vet School or Law School,” she says. “I haven’t decided yet. I hope to still be competing and to get a new horse.”
Unlike many young equestrian athletes, Ryan May from McDonald, Tenn., did not grow up in a family of equestrians. Nevertheless, this homeschooled senior’s passion for horses was passed down to him from his mother, always a horse enthusiast. Around 11 years ago, Ryan and his mom began taking riding lessons from a family friend, the owner of DogWood Farm in Cleveland. Ryan’s interest sparked immediately, and before long, he was riding constantly.
“When I was about 9 or 10, a friend let me borrow one of his show horses and show at the regional 4-H show,” explains Ryan. “That’s when I really got the fever and knew I wanted to show, so I purchased my first show horse from him.”
Ryan currently rides in both Western and English styles, competing in both the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) and the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA). This year he competed as an “open rider”—the highest level in IEA—and was the high point winner in the open division at the IEA zone four finals in South Carolina. This win qualified him to participate in the IEA nationals in Oklahoma, where he was ranked fifth in the nation in reining and horsemanship.
A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Ryan attributes his drive to succeed to strength from God and a competitive spirit. “It’s always been a dream of mine to be at the top,” he says. “I’d love to show at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress or the Quarter Horse World Championship but I’m just not there yet,” Ryan says.
“At IEA shows, you don’t have to have an expensive horse because you draw a horse and the competition hinges on the rider, not the horse. At Quarter Horse shows, you have to have a really nice horse. I’m really excited about the possibility of showing one of my horses at Congress this year.”
Ryan says he hasn’t nailed down his longterm career goals, but he knows he wants to be involved in the horse business for life. For now, he’s focusing his energy on training and volunteering at the Tri-State Therapeutic Riding Center. He’s also entertaining the possibility of joining an IHSA (college-level) team.
I think I loved horses from the time I was born,” says 16-yearold Haley Settles, a rising junior at Baylor School.
Haley is the president of the Tennessee Paint Horse Youth and the former president of the Hamilton County 4-H Horse Club, a position she held for the three years. She also served as one of the national directors for the American Junior Paint Horse Association last year.
She explains that she started riding at age seven. “I knew from attending 4-H competitions that I wanted to compete,” she says. “When I was nine, I met Janice Hickman, who introduced me to the world of competitive horse shows and encouraged me to go beyond the local level. She’s now one of my dearest friends.”
Hickman’s encouragement proved to be a very good thing. Now, under the guidance of her trainer Billy Korsack, Haley has earned numerous state championships and has been the all-around high-point youth in Tennessee for the past four years. Since 2009, she’s ranked third in the southern zone (6 states), earning nine national titles in the past three years. And then in this year’s Pinto World Championship Show, she placed three times in the top 10, for a total of six world championship placings in three years.
Haley says her drive to succeed is guided in part by the variety of skills she’s trying to master. “I compete in all disciplines— halter, showmanship, hunter under saddle, equitation, western pleasure, horsemanship, trail, western riding, reining, barrel racing, jumping and ranch horse riding,” she says. “When you’re trying to master that many disciplines, it’s never mundane.”
Ultimately, though, Haley says she’s motivated by her love for horses. “It is an indescribable bond of trust and unconditional love. When I’m having a difficult day, there is something so serene about spending time with them. They have taught me numerous life lessons, like patience and responsibility.”
Haley’s long-term goals include using her horsemanship skills to serve children and adults with autism and Down’s Syndrome. She’d like to ride for a collegiate team while persuing a career in physical therapy with a certification in hippotherapy (physical therapy using horses).
Zane and Emma Williams
Zane and Emma Williams, siblings from Ringgold, Ga., are quickly making names for themselves as accomplished youth rodeo competitors. Just this summer, Emma and Zane competed in rodeos all over the Western U.S., with stops in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.
A rising 8th grader at Boyd-Buchanan, Zane began riding on his sister’s horse, Snickers, shortly after he learned to walk. He competed in his first rodeo at the age of four through the Georgia Junior Rodeo Association (GJRA), and won his first saddle by age five. Currently, Zane’s rodeo events include chute dogging, goat tying, calf roping, team roping and ribbon roping. When asked what he enjoyed most about equestrianism, he replies that he loves being outside and “swinging a rope.”
Zane, a two-time qualifier, competed in the National Junior High School Rodeo Finals in New Mexico in July. He was also recently elected student president of the National Junior High Rodeo Association, a 3,000-member organization.
A rising junior at Boyd- Buchanan, Emma Williams is no less a leader in the youth rodeo community. She is currently serving a second year as youth director for International Finals Youth Rodeo, nicknamed “the world’s richest high school rodeo” for the cash prizes awarded to winners.
Emma says her love for horses began when she was five, the year her grandparents gave her a pony for Christmas. Two years later, she began competing in breakaway roping, goat tying and barrel racing.
Now, Emma spends her weekdays feeding and caring for her horses and riding them for at least three hours in the evenings. When asked what drives her to compete, Emma says, “I inherited a competitive gene from my Dad and I want to win!”
But even with many impressive accomplishments under her belt, Emma is still a typical teenager who enjoys hanging out with her friends and spending time with her family. And her riding philosophy reaches far beyond a love of competition. “I appreciate the sport because it promotes family closeness, Western heritage, animal wellness and a love of God,” she says.
A rising freshman at Soddy-Daisy High School, Lauren Wheeler says her first interaction with a horse didn’t go so well. “I was deathly afraid,” she says. “I would never have expected to be where I am right now.”
Where Lauren is right now is showing horses all over the South. She was the reserve champion in the horsemanship division at last year’s IEA nationals, and she’s had two top-10 finishes at the Pinto World Championship.
After her initial fear subsided, Lauren began taking riding lessons at age six. In the sixth grade, she joined an IEA team, where she met fellow equestrian Ryan May. Ryan introduced Lauren to her current trainer, Tom Green.
Now, Lauren’s in her second year showing with the Ocoee Equestrian Team as well as her second year in the paint horse circuit. She shows in hunt seat flat classes, over-fences and western horsemanship, and she’s adding reining to her resume this year.
For Lauren, the appeal of equestrianism is the idea of constant growth. “No matter how old you are or how long you’ve been riding, there is always something you can improve,” she says. “I’m out there every week, all year long. My sport doesn’t have off-seasons, bench warmers or breaks. I’m an equestrian 24/7, 365 days of the year.”
Despite having to turn down some social invitations and pass on some elements of a “normal” teenage life, Lauren is content with her choice. “At the end of the day, I’m not a high school football star or the most popular girl in school. I’m an equestrian, and I wouldn’t trade one minute that I’m around a horse for anything in the world.”
Lauren’s ambitions include competing in the 2013 Pinto World Championship show and riding at the collegiate level for Texas Christian University, Georgia, or Auburn. As far as personal goals, she’d like to be a role model to younger girls. “I’d really like my name out there in a positive way,” she says.
Bonnie St. Charles
An accomplished hunter/jumper, 16-year-old Bonnie St. Charles competes on the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) AA circuit, the highest and most prestigious level of competition offered in the nation.
“I’m a very driven person, and I have a strong desire to win and be the best I can be,” Bonnie says. “The AA circuit provides me that opportunity. Riding with the top riders definitely helps me push myself. If I want to win, I have to outride them, which is always difficult. But in the end, being able to compete with these types of competitors is very satisfying.”
Bonnie has been riding horses for 11 years, and riding competitively the last six. In 2011, she finished 6th in the USEF zone 4 region for the Small Junior Hunter 15 & Under division. She was also invited to compete at the 116th Annual Devon Horse Show, the oldest and most prestigious event in the nation.
“The competitions are expensive and often stressful, but I wouldn’t trade them for the world,” she says. “It’s a really great atmosphere to grow up in and, as my parents say, it takes up enough of my time that I don’t have any time to get in trouble!”
A junior at Girls Preparatory School, Bonnie is also an avid reader and dancer in Terpsichord, GPS’s modern dance company. Somehow, she also manages to find time in her busy schedule to ride and show as an ambassador for the non-profit Just-World International, which provides necessities to impoverished children in third-world countries.
Bonnie’s immediate goals include competitions all over the Southeast. “I really just want to keep improving and enjoying the sport,” she says. “I definitely see myself with horses in my life. I would love to keep competing at this level in the amateur divisions and to one day have my own barn.”
Who said riding American Saddlebreds was just a Kentucky thing? Sixteen-yearold Alexis Landreth from Silverdale Baptist has been rocking the American Saddlebred World Championship for the past six years. In the last two, she’s had back-to-back finishes as the reserve world champion in the 17-and-under division.
Alexis was seven when she had her first lesson at a small barn in Georgia. “The trainer that I took lessons from—she was really into Saddlebreds. Back in her day she had a lot of accomplished riders. That’s all I’ve been around.”
And that’s all she’s wanted to be around. Even though she’s played other sports, Alexis says she’s always been more dedicated to riding, calling it her “number one priority.”
“After I started riding, I started digging up some dirt and watching a lot of videos of Saddlebreds on Youtube,” she says. “They’re never boring…they never run out of gas. They always carry their head high. When you see people riding and the whole crowd behind is going crazy, it’s a great feeling. They are very special horses.”
When Alexis was nine, she switched to a new trainer, who led her to her first reserve world championship title. A few years later, she began working with a different trainer in Kentucky. “They call her the ‘gaited queen.’ She’s the best when it comes to a five gaited horse (referring to a horse’s natural and trained footfall patterns). She led me to another world reserve championship.”
Her goal now? “To win the world championship,” she says. “It’s always been at the top of my list when it comes to horses. I’ve never had that feeling and I’ve always wanted that.”
Alexis has already gone up to Kentucky for a week this summer to get “the feel of it” again and build up muscles. She normally goes up once a month to practice, and when she’s home, she’s riding a different horse.
“I have three horses, three shots. I am really hoping I win this year. If I win, I will cry my eyes out. But winning isn’t everything. A crowd favorite is better. The best part is that you’re with your friends, your horses, and you get up and have a great time.”
Alexis will be at the 2012 American Saddlebred World Championships in Kentucky from August 19-25.