The Luck of the Draw

Alex Varisco riding for St Andrews

The Luck of the Draw

By Alex Varsico

Whoever said that high school years are the best years of our lives obviously didn’t go to college. At least, that’s my opinion after attending St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, North Carolina for the past two semesters. It is almost inconceivable for me to write about completing my freshman year in college, working my way towards a double major in Equine Business and Communications and riding on two intercollegiate equestrian teams within the St. Andrews Equestrian Program. Could it be that over a year ago I was receiving my Senior Award at the SEDA banquet? I participated in SEDA under my instructor Elizabeth Simmons since I was seven years old, and if it wasn’t for my prior experience with many different disciplines (hunter jumpers, dressage, 4-H), I would have had a very different experience riding in the intercollegiate programs here at St. Andrews.

After competing at the collegiate level for almost a year now, I truly have come to appreciate Mrs. Elizabeth’s guidance in exposing me to almost every type of horse possible during the last fourteen years of my riding. Most of us are used to riding one particular horse throughout the year and competing on that mount to earn points through a certain association. However, collegiate riding necessitates quite a different program of riding and requires versatility from its riders. Competing on a collegiate team through the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) and the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) entails lessons on a different horse every week in preparation for competitions. Each competitor gets one shot to ride for the blue, and in addition to the pressure of having to get it right the first time, riders draw the name of the mount they will be riding out of a “pool” of horses. There are no guarantees when drawing from the hat, and unless a team has home show advantage, most riders must enter the ring on a horse they have never sat on before show day.

I thought renvers and counter canter were the most difficult parts of my dressage career at the time…until I was asked to try out for the IDA team at St. Andrews! Since I competed up to Second Level at recognized competitions in high school, I had to start off competing in the First Level Division, which is the highest level of intercollegiate dressage, according to IDA rules. I actually joined the SAU Dressage Team mid-way through my first semester, and one could say I almost jumped in headfirst. The team needed a first level rider, so I tried out on a Monday and was headed to my first IDA competition at Averett University in Virginia the following Saturday.

There’s a lot to be said for the rider who can literally ride anything she or he sits on, and this has been a skill that has taken a lot of hard work, dedication, determination, and loads of patience on my part. When competing, a rider is given ten minutes to warm up the horse he or she drew before entering the ring to ride the test. That’s only ten minutes to figure out details about a horse that riders usually spend years understanding and mastering to ride the perfect test! Does the horse need a soft leg and firm hand? Is he unmotivated or quick to respond to the aids? Which way does he leg yield best? An IDA competitor must literally answer all of these questions and more within a ten- minute warm up, and the judge expects no less than any other horse and rider pair.

A rule of thumb I have learned from my IDA experience is that the most important part of competing in intercollegiate dressage is consistency. The more consistent I am with focusing on my own correctness, the better ride I will have on any horse that I draw. Rather than trying to figure out all of the ins and outs of the horse in ten minutes (which is really impossible), I have learned that being consistent to the basics actually helps me more.

Another thing I have learned about IDA is that the result is certainly affected heavily by the luck of the draw. I don’t mean this in a sense that if I don’t draw the nicest or fanciest horse of the group, then I am doomed to be in last place. In IDA, placings are completely up in the air no matter the fanciness or flashiness of the horse. A rider can draw the best-trained horse of the group, yet if he or she doesn’t have the skill or knowledge to push the right buttons, then the horse probably won’t perform to its best potential. It’s the same for, say, the plainest horse of the lot who, if drawn by a consistent, skilled rider, may have the steadiest, most accurate test of the division and, therefore, end up with the highest score. Consequently, I feel I have had very random draws; I have drawn a steady first level horse at my team’s home competition, and I have drawn a German-trained mount from Averett University. This horse was apparently reliving his days as an upper level horse and decided we could only do flying changes in our first level test instead of simples! It was truly a learning experience.

I guess the reason why I enjoy riding at the intercollegiate level so much is the fact that I wouldn’t be able to have this experience anywhere else at this point in my life. Many college equestrian programs do not allow freshmen to ride on two teams their first year. My case is unique, and I am grateful. I have gained a multitude of experience riding many different types of horses (all the while maintaining a full-time college student load), and it has changed my way of thinking. Perhaps some of it may be the luck of the draw, but my goal for next semester is to win the blue on whatever horse I pull, that way I know my score was earned and luck won’t have anything to do with it!

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