“You get on whatever horse you draw and make the best of it.” – Sara Robinow, the coach for Cal Poly’s Dressage Team, is speaking literally.
In both the Dressage and Equestrian Shows, the contestants draw a horse out of a hat. They are allowed to observe their “drawn” horse during a warm up, but their physical contact with their mount is limited to ten minutes, and then the clock starts.
“It really tests your horsemanship, how quickly can you figure out a horse.” Christy Jardetzky, co-captain of the Equestrian Team, explains.
According to Sara Robinow, “It levels the playing field. You have riders that can do great things on their horse, but you put them on a different horse, and it changes the way it works.”
Sara was a member of the Dressage Team herself for two years. Now a graduate student at Cal Poly currently pursuing her masters in Marriage and Family Therapy, she has been coaching the team for the last three years. The Dressage Team consists of roughly 30 students in varying degrees of riding experience. This team is registered as a club at Cal Poly, and competes against universities such as Stanford, Davis, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz.
Their season, which spans from October to February, consists of five shows, each hosted by a different university. The host school provides the horses for their show allowing them a “home field” advantage and the ability to dictate how many students can compete from each team.
The Dressage events consist of four levels, the lowest of which is a “walk, trot” test. The tests become progressively longer and more complex. The upper level tests consists of a “walk, trot, canter” with lengthening’s and lateral work as well. Each movement is given a score from 1 to 10 based on how well the horse and rider work together, with a focus on precision and smooth transitions. The judging, according to Sara, “Can be pretty subjective, but we’ve found great judges in the area who are really good, very consistent. “
Although this is the only West Coast Dressage Region in existence, the members remain competitive in the Intercollegiate Dressage Association. In the last fifteen years, the Cal Poly Dressage team has won their division eleven times. This year, Maggie McKitrick qualified for Nationals and will compete in Virginia in April.
Preparation for these shows is a large commitment. With thirty students and three horses – scheduling practices in and of itself is a challenge. The students practice four days a week, in two hour increments on horses and tack that have been donated to the program. Although once a competitor herself, Sara has found coaching to be an even greater learning experience.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of experience teaching before I came here, I grew up around horses since I was little and took a lot of lessons. Then I started coaching, and you think you want to do things a certain way. It’s a whole different skill, whole different ball game from just riding. You learn a lot, and you have to relearn everything from another viewpoint. But it’s a lot of fun, and the girls are really fun.”
While she may feel like she’s relearning everything, the Dressage Team president, Lauren Eberle, couldn’t be more grateful to have Sara sharpening her skills in the arena. “Sara is the best coach. Some coaches teach you so that you can’t do it without them. She really teaches you so that you really understand it, so you’re not dependent on her.”
When the Dressage Team leaves the arena, the Equestrian Team takes their place. With over 200 members, and a core group of approximately 40 competitors practicing 6 days a week, there isn’t much down time for this team.
The Equestrian team competes in seven English, and seven Western shows throughout the season. In the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association you are placed into a level based on your riding experience. For western those levels begin at “walk, jog”, continuing through Open Level Horsemanship. Equitation in western includes a pattern and rail work, while the English Class consists of Equitation on the flats as well as jumping a course. The judges are critiquing how well you sit, and how smoothly you communicate with the horse. All of this is done on a horse you have spent less than ten minutes with prior to entering the arena.
The team is led by Co-Captains Christy Jardetsky, who majors in Animal Science and Sam Morrissey who majors in Bio Medical Engineering. The majority of their responsibility it to handle the logistics of the team: Keeping track of the ongoing shows, maintaining member paperwork, coordinating with regional and national officers, as well as orchestrating all doctoring, feeding, and grooming of the horses. “We get people who have never been on a horse before, and we’ll teach them to ride as well. However, the tricky thing is we only have five team horses, and with 200 students on the team we can’t get people on as often as we’d like to. We’re looking for more horses to add our team so we can grow.”
Within the core group of 40 to 50 competitors, only 15 to 20 are able to actually enter the shows each weekend. Determining who will compete isn’t an easy task, but one they have outlined well. Christy explains how it’s not all about winning: “We pick who can go based on who’s putting in the most effort, who comes to the most practices. So that if we have someone who may be an AQHA champion but doesn’t put any effort into the team, and there is this beginner who puts a ton of effort into our team, we want them to show because even though they have less experience they have the will and drive to be there.”
“The neat thing about our team is that we really emphasize a sense of camaraderie. In order to save on travel expenses and create a more cohesive group, we have teammates host us for the shows. We can’t ask for better families, they are amazing, and take such good care of us when we travel.” While they have families taking care of them on the road, they have local volunteers coaching them here at home. People like Lou Moore Jacobsen of One Moore Training Stables; come in once a week to help Natalie Baker coach the girls through their practice.
With their help this year, the Equestrian Team has seven students going to Regionals, and two students, Christy Jardetzky and Zoe Inglis, who pointed out of their division and will be going straight into the Semi-finals held at West Texas A&M.
Natalie Baker, the Cal Poly Equine Center Supervisor, has a strong background competing on a Collegiate Equestrian Team and has been an asset to the Equestrian and Dressage Teams at Cal Poly. Since taking the position in August, Natalie has brought in three volunteers to help coach the students – support from the community which has made all the difference to these students.
While Cal Poly does an excellent job hosting a Western Show and a Dressage show, Natalie’s long term goal is to bring back in the Hunt Seat Equestrian show. “I come from a very strong English back ground, growing up on the Hunter Jumper circuit. I’ve been working to make connections in the area so that we can eventually host a Hunt Seat Equestrian show as well. We haven’t done as much Hunt Seat show hosting because we haven’t been able to find as many horses in the area that are really good, safe, solid hunt seat horses for students to ride. But I would love to see that come back again. That’s more of my influence and background, more of my passion.”
With over 200 students involved in the Dressage and Equestrian Teams at Cal Poly, it’s no small feat providing them all with the tools, instruction, and horses to obtain high levels of excellence in the arena. The coaches and the support of the community have been what the girls consider a blessing and they’re not afraid of the hard work it takes to be competitive. Christy Jardetzky says they are firm believers in “You get out what you put in, which is also kind of Cal Poly’s motto as a whole.”