When I was younger, I idolized the kids who rode on the A circuit.
I spent most of my middle and high school career riding on the Welsh Circuit with a first place goal and some small titles here and there. Once I graduated from ponies I rode for the blue at bigger shows. Still, I wanted to be the girls travelling to Florida in the winter. Now, as a high school senior with a “don’t care” attitude and experience in multiple circuits, I can say that IEA is my favorite of them all.
The Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) promotes English and Western riding to middle and high school students in America. Competitions are run the same way as IHSA (the college version) where riders come only with their clothes, draw their mounts out of a hat and are judged on equitation only. They compete against other barns and schools for individual points as well as team points in five regular shows. If they are lucky enough to qualify, riders compete in regionals, then zones, and maybe even nationals.
When I heard that my friend’s barn had an English team, I called them up to join. I had weekly practice in the form of individual or group lessons with other girls on the team, while still being able to ride with my trainer uninterrupted. Now, with three IEA competitions under my belt, I know joining the team was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Other than the obvious new friendships I have made with other girls on the team and the fondness I have for the middle school kids on the team, I have changed as a competitive rider.
What makes IEA difficult and unique is the horses that you ride. When you arrive at a competition you draw a school horse out of a hat and get a sentence or two describing them. You never know what you’re going to get. At one show I drew a 20 year old that had no motivation to move, and at a different show I drew a prized equitation horse. However, the thought I had after exiting the ring on both horses was the same: “I got on, did my job, and that is enough for me.” Competing on a horse you’ve never met is scary, but it reminded me why I compete at all.
I don’t love horse shows because I love blue ribbons, I love horse shows for the feeling of accomplishment and success from hard work paying off. IEA takes away the “my ten thousand dollar horse better win or else” attitude. The only thing you have control over is yourself. The horse you ride might be crazy, or a saint. I have drawn a horse that wouldn’t stop, a horse that wouldn’t go, and a horse that was almost perfect. All three times the only thing I could do was ride. I jumped my courses, watched my diagonals, and minded my leads in a back-to-the-basics way.
Another thing I love about IEA is the emphasis on the team. Even though it’s not, sometimes horseback riding seems so individual. Being able to ride for a team and earn points for a team adds another layer to the competition and allows you to really cheer for your friends. Most of the moms and dads come to watch and there are riders from ages 12 to 18 on the same team. I think that’s pretty unique.
They say that the best riders are those that can ride anything, and IEA winners are proof of that. The riders who make it to nationals do so because they can ride, not because they got lucky and drew perfect horses for every competition.
While I still love HITS and Garden State as much as anyone else, I believe that IEA is a true test of ability. It’s not fancy or glamorous, but it sure is rewarding. Ever since joining IEA, I love my small schooling shows just as much as the rated ones. I love to compete because I love to ride and it doesn’t matter what horse I’m on.