For Central Kentucky horse lovers, this is a great time of year. The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event was last weekend, and the 142nd Kentucky Derby is this weekend.
This week there’s also another major equine event in the region — the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, or IHSA, National Championships at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The competition, which starts Thursday and continues through Sunday, draws equestrian teams from throughout the United States, and the University of Kentucky team will be well represented.
Though it has been nearly four years since the Southeastern Conference added equestrian riding, the UK team isn’t part of that. There are two reasons: the SEC doesn’t allow male riders — and the UK team has one — and because it’s very competitive, beginning riders don’t stand much of a chance.
But that didn’t seem to bother the 38-member UK team as it prepared for the national competition, which will have 400 riders from 25 teams.
In fact, that equal opportunity to ride is what attracts a lot of the team’s members.
Molly Ernst, a senior who is majoring in integrated strategic communications, said that if the team was in the SEC, she wouldn’t be competing.
This is Ernst’s first year, and she is competing in the team walk-trot division. “… lower division riders wouldn’t have a chance, so I like it,” Ernst said.
Team members compete in divisions such as walk-trot, beginner walk-trot canter, advanced walk-trot canter, novice, intermediate and open. While there are horse clubs that specialize in particular types of horses, the UK team is fairly all-encompassing.
Of this year’s team, seven individuals and an eight-member team won the zones — the level just before the national competition — in early April in Plymouth, Mich. Of those, five individuals qualified for the national competition, the most from UK team to qualify since 2012.
The riders accumulate points over their IHSA career to advance to the competition levels. A rider has to earn 28 points in the current year to make it to nationals. Teams also accumulate points to get to the zones, where the two highest-scoring teams advance to nationals.
A lot of time and money goes into being a team member.
“Being on the equestrian team is kind of expensive,” said Taylor Weinold, a sophomore and accounting major. “But a lot of us have been doing it our entire lives, so it’s a bit normal to us.”
Weinold competed in zones this year as the team rider for novice over fences. In the novice division, jumps can reach up to 2 feet, 3 inches.
So how expensive can it be? Well, the team is privately funded. IHSA members pay to be a part of the team, and for the horse shows and for their equipment and clothing.
“Yearly, our dues including horse shows are a little over $1,000, typically,” Weinold said.
“It’s a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of commitment, a lot of everything. It’s kind of one of the more intense sports,” said Katherine Murphy, a freshman who is majoring in equine science.
Some team members board their own horses, but most ride the 25 school horses available at their training facility at Olive Hill Sporthorses, a sales and training program that works with Robert Murphy Stables to provide opportunities for riders and horses.
Team members said competing in the IHSA more opportunities for riders of all levels.
“With club riding, you get so many different riders from so many different levels that it still can be super competitive, especially when you move up to the higher levels of IHSA,” said Weinold.
Murphy agreed, saying, “It’s a lot more difficult, because when we compete we don’t know these horses. We get on them, we put one foot in the stirrup and we get right in rein.”
Through IHSA, the team is able to accept riders who have just started and have less than 26 weeks of instructions, along with riders who have been competing for 10 to 12 years.
The equestrian team isn’t the only horse sport team at UK. There’s the dressage and eventing team, horse racing club, polo team, rodeo team, saddle seat team and the R.E.A.D. — Research in Equine and Agricultural Disciplines — Club.
Equestrian tem members wish they could receive more financial support from the university, but they realize that would be complicated.
“To fund all of them equally would cost them a lot of money,” said Haley Dowty, a senior majoring in elementary education who has been president of the team for three years. “We do totally different things, we ride totally different animals even though were all on horses. So to make one horse team would be nearly impossible.”
The team finds sponsors each year to provide cash donations, shavings, hay and prizes. This year, the club’s biggest partnership was with The Tack Shop of Lexington.
“They gave us all our prizes for our horse show and also allowed any team member to get a discounted price from them,” Dowty said.
If you go
2016 IHSA National Championships
When: May 5-8. Starts at 8:30 a.m. May 5, 8 a.m. May 6-8.
Where: Alltech Arena, Kentucky Horse Park