When I first moved to Ashland, it seemed nearly every teenage girl I met was crazy for horses. Fortunately for horse-loving teens, Ashland High has its own equestrian team, the Grizzlies.
I associated equestrian teams with privilege, an exclusive sport far out of reach for most kids. Grizzly coach Richard Walsh and team member Christine Baker explained otherwise.
"It's pretty accessible," Walsh said. "The equestrian team is a club sport and supported by volunteers, parents and friends. We also get help from the high school and the Ashland Schools Foundation. It's a real community effort."
Walsh says that while many of the team members have their own horses, some do not.
"Not having a horse shouldn't stop you if you want to do this," he said. "We've had horses get injured during meets and had to beg, borrow and steal them from other people in the community. We all do what we can to help each other out."
The team relies on donations and volunteers, and is planning a garage sale in May.
Christine Baker has been riding regularly since she was 6 years old, but only recently got her own horse.
"We moved here last year from Denver and part of the reason we picked Ashland is because of the school's equestrian team," she said. "I'd tell anyone interested in riding to not give up. You don't have to be rich, just determined."
Baker says that many horse owners will allow kids to use their horses in exchange for giving the horse the care and attention that the owners may not be able to give.
The team trains at Assistant Coach Laura Stutesman's training stables in Ashland and has three meets a year at the county fairgrounds. Meets involve a variety of competitions including barrel racing, cow herding and choreographed drill teams, "sort of like synchronized swimming on horseback," said Walsh. The next competition is April 19-21.
This year there are eight team members — seven girls and one boy. Baker observes, "We could use some more boys on the team. I think a lot of guys just haven't realized how much fun it is."
Walsh adds that there are usually more girls than boys. "It's always been that way, even when I was young."
While the equestrian team is open to horselovers in all income brackets, the sport is for committed riders. Walsh warns, "This is not where you go if you've never been on a horse before. It's a tough sport and people can get hurt."
All riders are required to wear helmets and work long hours.
"Equestrian work isn't just throwing your shoes in a gym bag and going to practice," said Walsh. "You need to prepare ahead of time."
Baker adds that the intensity of training and the time commitments are challenging, but they also are part of what makes equestrian work so appealing.
"I always thought it was an individual sport, but it's more about you and your horse working with other team members and their horses. We really get to know one another when we're working so closely," she said.
Walsh says riding with the team offers some important life lessons. "The biggest thing I think they'll get out of this is perseverance," said Walsh. "The horse doesn't always do want you want it to do and you have to persevere. It takes a long time to be able to excel at this sport."
Baker agrees. "We all have challenges, but with riding and horses, or anything you love, it's important to never give up," she said.
Walsh is proud of his team. "These young ladies and our young man are great. They work hard and they are learning what competition is all about. It's like the real world, life is tough and you have to hang in there. Also, horses are something special."
To make a donation or to learn more, email Richard Walsh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at email@example.com.