Just a few years out of college themselves, Stephanie Leddy ’11 and Brittany Veninger ’15, coached the IHSA Hunter/Jumper Team through a very successful national finals competition at the Kentucky Horse Park in early May. Due to the illness of Head Coach Russ Walther, Leddy, assistant coach, and Veninger, graduate assistant, found themselves “holding the reins” … literally!
“It was a little nerve-racking to head to Kentucky without Russ,” admitted Leddy. Still, she and Veninger are, themselves, veterans of many IHSA competitions and knew they had a cohesive team. They headed south from the University of Findlay on May 3 with eight riders, and only three who had been at “nationals” before.
The IHSA Hunter/Jumper Team at UF is enjoying increased popularity with 80 students vying for 35-40 spots in 2015-2016. Just about all are majoring in equestrian studies and/or equine business management, but a few come from other majors throughout the University.
“It’s a varsity sport,” emphasized Veninger. “IHSA lets students, who may not be able to afford it on an individual basis, compete at a high level. The students aren’t charged and we do fundraisers throughout the year.”
The team schedule includes about 10 horse shows annually over five weekends. There are also regional and zone competitions and, of course, national finals if you qualify. The team practices three times per week and members work out at the University fitness center twice weekly.
Riders at IHSA competitions “draw” horses supplied by the hosting institution, or from a pool supplied by several schools. Many, literally, see their mounts for the first time shortly before entering the show ring.
“Riding a strange horse, especially one that has a reputation for being difficult, can be very unsettling,” added Veninger. “I just tell the team to ride your best and have fun. Actually, some of the best rides you can have are on a horse you didn’t want to draw.”
Originally from Sidney, Ohio, Leddy begged her parents for riding lessons at age 10 and continued riding, competing in shows in the Dayton, Ohio area. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from UF and a Master of Arts in Literature from Bowling Green State University.
Veninger, who grew up in New Jersey, got hooked on riding after a trail ride with her father. She got her first horse at age 13 and has been competing ever since. Majoring in Equestrian Studies and Marketing as an undergraduate, she is currently pursuing an MBA at UF. As a graduate assistant, Veninger works closely with the IHSA team and the University’s horses. She coordinated a trip for six students to Ocala, Florida to compete in shows during spring break 2016.
Both young women want to continue to teach and coach. They agreed that patience and a positive attitude are the major attributes of a good coach.
“You need to develop a feel for who needs to be pushed and when they need more confidence,” Veninger added. “You also need to be fair. One size doesn’t fit all in riding.”
With the team competing at nationals at the Horse Park from May 4-7, the two young women served as coaches, trainers, grooms and team logicians. They agree that the best part of the competition was the “team dynamic” that took place.
“Everyone pushed to be better,” remembered Leddy. “ They took the time to break down the jump courses and really think them through. They became proactive rather than reactive.”
Recuperating at home, Walther was glued to the live feed provided by the USEF Network. He advised Leddy and Veninger via cell phone and included lots of encouragement. When the UF team placed third in the nation, he was elated. Adding to the happy (year) ending, Elle Brady won the National Championship in Intermediate Equitation Over Fences.
“When Elle was waiting for results in the ring, we were pretty confident,” Leddy recalled. “It was down to two riders and when they announced second place, we realized that she had won. Brit just lost it!”