EQUESTRIAN Stables provide a 'de-stressor'

All 15 teams will compete in an Oct. 21 show at Westminster's home stables.
NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. -- Westminster College's equestrian team offers students a respite from the stress of academia with laid-back competition.
"It's very relaxing at times, and it's just very enjoyable," said Tammy Bugher of West Middlesex, a junior majoring in elementary education, who said the team appeals to her because it promotes good horsemanship.
"You get to ride, and it's just good camaraderie between all the girls. Probably the most important special thing about it is how a human being can work so well with an animal," she observed.
"I like the atmosphere here," said Mary Kingston, a sophomore English major from Erie, Pa., who lives in a college dorm.
"It's more focused on fun than winning," she said. "The team members are great. We're like a little family. The horses are great. You get to be one with nature. It's a beautiful area."
Where they ride: Little Neshannock Stables, on Fayette-New Wilmington Road about a mile from campus, is home to the college's equestrian programs.
"It's therapy. It's a way for them to come out and relax and forget about class. It's mentally and physically a 'de-stressor.' We have a very low-key environment,'' said Mary McKinley, who owns the stables, resides next to them, and serves as the college's equestrian director and coach.
The stables also offer a separate equestrian course which counts as a physical education credit.
There are 20 students on the team, which competes against 14 other teams in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, including Slippery Rock University, the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, West Virginia University, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Westminster, one of the smaller participants, generally ranks sixth or seventh in its 15-team region, McKinley said.
The entire association consists of about 260 colleges and universities and about 5,000 competing student riders.
Competition: The students, who practice throughout the school year, compete at novice, intermediate and advanced levels in walking, trotting, cantering and jumping events. They clear hurdles as high as three feet.
Although the sport is listed as co-educational, all members of this year's Westminster team happen to be women, said McKinley, who has coached the team since it began eight years ago.
Team members compete in about 10 shows annually, beginning in the fall, resuming in late winter, and concluding in the spring.
Two of the shows are home events at Little Neshannock Stables, including one Oct. 21 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in which all 15 teams are slated to participate.
Judges rate each rider's performance (not the horse's performance) on a point scale; the team's score is the sum of all its riders' scores. The team with the most points wins.
"It's the next level for me, since I've ridden out here all throughout high school and I'm going to Westminster,'' said Courtney Hoover of New Wilmington, a freshman political science major.
Hoover, who teaches riding lessons at the team's home stables, said the sport appeals to her because of "the love of riding horses, the idea of being able to see other people at other schools riding, and the opportunity to grow in my skills as a rider."
Hosting events: Westminster's home stables are on an 80-acre horse farm with complete outdoor and indoor practice and competition facilities.
When it conducts a home show, each team is responsible for supplying all of the horses needed for the event.
To be fair to all contestants, whether they own horses or not, a drawing on the day of the event determines which horse each rider will mount for the competition.
The Westminster team convenes three afternoons a week for practice at the stables, where students can readily walk, bicycle or carpool from campus.
Students must make arrangements for their own attire, and team costs are covered by dues paid by student participants, fund-raising activities and college funds.

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