Creekside Farms equestrian team finds success while learning the sport in Irmo

bbetts@thestate.comJuly 10, 2013 

Megan Whiting, 14 of Lexington visits with "Sully" during her break from practice.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — kkfoster@thestate.com Buy Photo

— You don’t need the best horse to be a great rider.

That’s 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 team’s 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 rider’s 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 can’t afford an expensive horse.

“It’s a good way for kids who don’t 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 team’s first practice of the season. About half of the team’s members board horses and train at Creekside Farm’s 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 it’s not,” she said. “You have to be attune to your horse. It’s a partnership.”

Small mistakes can lead to big point deductions. McCaskill pointed out when one rider’s horse led with the wrong leg going into a corner, saying “it’s 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 USC’s 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 don’t understand when she tries to explain her chosen sport.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, so you race,’ ” she said, adding that most of her friends also ride.

Several moms stayed for Tuesday’s 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.

“It’s no different than being a dance mom, soccer mom,” said Amy May, who’s daughter Sarah Gates May has been riding since she was seven. “It’s just a lot more expensive.”

But May added that the girls’ love for riding was never in doubt, calling it “a commitment beyond anything I’ve ever been committed to.”

“They eat, breath, and sleep horses,” she said.

The team is looking ahead to its first competition in September, which it’s 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 she’ll be ready to compete regardless of what horse she rides.

“A lot of stuff is learning as you go,” she said. “But that’s the fun part of it.”


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