On a brisk November morning, Lily Dempsey, who studies international affairs and economics at Northeastern, scolds Duckie, a salt-and-pepper Irish warmblood, for sneaking a bite of hay while she bridles him for practice.
Dempsey is a member of the Northeastern University Equestrian Team, one of more than 50 sport clubs on campus. Equestrian team members practice four times a week at the team’s barn in Rowley, Massachusetts, an hour north of Northeastern’s Boston campus. On weekends, the students compete in the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, known as IHSA, on horses assigned randomly, which allows the judges to fairly evaluate the riders’ skills.
Pieces of hay rain down from above the stable while Dempsey carefully grooms Duckie’s coat so she can saddle and bridle him for practice. For members of the Northeastern equestrian team, a squabble with a horse is not out of the normal morning routine.
Members of the club carpool or take the commuter rail to nearby Ipswich, to practice at the team’s barn. The students arrive close to sunrise to groom and tack up—the equestrian phrase for preparing—their horses.
They lead the horses out of the barn to meet head coach Tammy Hicock, who, on this November morning, is swaddling the team’s unofficial mascot, a 15-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Scout. As Hicock circles the arena, she carefully watches the interactions between the riders and horses as they walk, trot, and canter. When she notices the skittish behavior of a thoroughbred horse named Tizzy, she intervenes. She tells the rider, Noah Geslao, who is a civil engineering student at Northeastern, to walk the horse up to the jump first, before taking it at a trot.
It’s important for team members to learn how to react to the behavior of their horses, because during a competition, everything is left up to the luck of the draw. The riders literally pull the name of a horse out of a hat, and that’s the horse they’ll ride during the competition—a stark departure from relying upon the intensely personal relationships that riders often develop with their horses.
The riders are given a little insight into their randomly assigned horses before the competition begins. Students from the university hosting the competition will ride the horses around the arena to demonstrate the horses’ demeanors and skill levels. It’s up to the competitors to pay attention to the horses they’ll soon ride.
This random assignment of horses is crucial to the competition, because it allows judges to more accurately evaluate how effectively a rider can communicate with a horse.
“Competing with a horse you have never ridden before is definitely the most challenging aspect of the IHSA program,” says Caitlin Looney, co-captain of the team along with Lauren Pippins. “It tests how versatile, adaptable, and knowledgeable of a rider you are. A talented and competitive rider knows how to handle and effectively ride any horse that possesses varied speeds and temperaments.”
Judges also base their scores on how gracefully the rider and horse work together, as well as the rider’s appearance. Before the competition begins, team members help each other to shine their boots and tuck their hair inside nets under their riding hats to create a polished look.
For the most part, the riders are calm and collected during the competition. As they mount their horses and wait to compete, they try to recall the notes they took on the horses’ behavior during the showcase. But once they lead their horses out of the dusty riding arena, the smiles break out.
Madison DiBella, who is a nursing student, can’t contain her excitement as she jumps up to hug coach Hicock: She has qualified for regionals.