IRMO — You dont need the best horse to be a great rider.
Thats what young athletes on the Irmo-based Creekside Farm equestrian team learned last spring when several middle school members rode unfamiliar horses to a fourth-place finish at national finals in Syracuse, N.Y.
Now, the teams 24 middle school and high school girls are again donning their practice polos and riding boots in preparation for a new season, ready to show that success takes good coaching, parental support and a stubborn virtue called commitment.
Founded in 2011, the Creekside Farm equestrian team offers young riders the chance to compete in hunter/jumper, or hunt seat, riding, a style that tests a riders ability to control a horse while riding on flat ground and over fences. At competitions, participants are randomly assigned a horse instead of riding their own, a format designed to level the playing field for those who cant afford an expensive horse.
Its a good way for kids who dont own their own horse to ride and compete at a high level, said Adrian Mack, team coach and head trainer at Creekside Farms.
Heathwood Hall Episcopal School and the Hammond School also started equestrian teams in recent years, but Creekside is the only local team not affiliated with a school.
Riders from as far as Charlotte traveled to Irmo on Tuesday for the teams first practice of the season. About half of the teams members board horses and train at Creekside Farms facilities, but the other members train elsewhere and meet for competitions and the occasional joint practice.
Out on the ring, Mack and assistant trainer Emma Philips coached the riders on how to make a good first impression with judges.
Mary Beth McCaskill, a senior at Ben Lippen High, has competed with the Creekside team from the beginning. She said the key during the competitions was to make the horse look good without letting the judges see, using subtle hand and leg cues to calm and direct the horse.
You want it to look easy even though its not, she said. You have to be attune to your horse. Its a partnership.
Small mistakes can lead to big point deductions. McCaskill pointed out when one riders horse led with the wrong leg going into a corner, saying its like if you forget a step in a dance routine.
Creekside Farm competes under the same format used at the collegiate level, and former team members have gone on to ride for Lander University, College of Charleston and Michigan State. McCaskill said it is difficult to make a highly competitive NCAA team such as USCs but that she would love to ride in college for a club team, maybe at Clemson.
The sport presents challenges in balancing riding, school and a social life.
Many of the girls ride five days a week and regularly travel to weekend competitions on their own and with the team that require them to miss school.
Team member Ashley Parker, a rising freshman at Spring Hill High, said many of her peers at school dont understand when she tries to explain her chosen sport.
Theyre like, Oh, so you race, she said, adding that most of her friends also ride.
Several moms stayed for Tuesdays practice, watching their girls compete from a shaded patio overlooking the ring. They spoke to the time and especially the financial commitment it took to support their daughters passion.
Its no different than being a dance mom, soccer mom, said Amy May, whos daughter Sarah Gates May has been riding since she was seven. Its just a lot more expensive.
But May added that the girls love for riding was never in doubt, calling it a commitment beyond anything Ive ever been committed to.
They eat, breath, and sleep horses, she said.
The team is looking ahead to its first competition in September, which its hosting in Camden, and is hoping to have both the middle school and high school teams make it to nationals this year.
For McCaskill, that means another year of honing her skills so shell be ready to compete regardless of what horse she rides.
A lot of stuff is learning as you go, she said. But thats the fun part of it.