When English equestrian studies major Coleton Cook signed on to ride in Florida over spring break 2016, he didn’t know his traveling companions all that well.
“I wasn’t really close to anyone and after just two weeks those five other people became like family to me,” recalled Cook.
One of six University of Findlay students who fulfilled the dream of riding in A-rated shows AND escaping northwest Ohio’s capricious spring weather, Cook flew to Ocala, Florida on February 24 to experience a whirlwind two weeks of riding, competing, sharing, helping and winning!
Ocala Horse Shows in the Sun (HITS) is a series of 10 consecutive United States Equestrian Foundation rated shows, taking place this year from January 17 through March 28. Held at Post Time Farm, a 450-acre setting that includes a new Grand Prix stadium, the HITS series offered more than $3 million in prize money.
This wasn’t the first trip to southern shows by UF riders, but possibly one of the most successful, both in terms of ribbons and teambuilding. Coached by Russ Walther and graduate assistant Brittany Veninger, the six students worked as a well-oiled machine in caring for the six horses they brought from Findlay and helping each other get ready for numerous classes. Multiply this by several days and it was both an exhausting and exhilarating experience.
“Showing with Findlay, we also take care of the horses completely by ourselves,” stated Melanie McCaffrey. Many other stables have grooms that feed, water, sweep, clean stalls and groom/tack up, but we do all of this work ourselves, on top of actually competing.”
McCaffrey added that a typical day in Ocala began at 5:30 a.m. and ended with a late “night check” of the horses before going back to the hotel. Although admitting it was physically and mentally wearing she emphasized there was no other way she would have rather spent her spring break. “I love going to horse shows and I learn so much with every class I ride in.”
Hug Your Friends. . . And Your Horse!
Although starting the trip with a sense of camaraderie, the students never imagined it could become the bonding experience that it did.
“Throughout the day we were back and forth to each other’s rings to watch and take pictures and video,” remembered Sarah Kachmarski. “Our group got along really well. We made fun of each other and laughed a lot, so we didn’t take setbacks too hard.”
Cook, who took a reserve championship the second week, added, “Not once did anyone not have any of our team members there for them at their rings. Every class we were there to help groom, set up jumps and just make things go faster. You could trust anyone in the group to get the job done. You always knew it would be done at the right time and in the correct manner.”
The riders also bonded more strongly with their horses, some who exhibited a real flair for the show ring. Leslie Turner’s horse “Cello” helped calm her nerves as he kicked into show mode. Cello, new to the University of Findlay this year, was assigned to Turner for spring semester.
“Later that day was our first division class,” she recalled. “Feeling more confident, Cello and I went into the ring as a team and we won our first blue ribbon.” By the end of the trip Cello and Turner had won six first place ribbons, a championship the first week and reserve champion the second week.
One of the goals of the UF equestrian program is to teach students to deal with challenges, both personally and in working with various horses. Sydney Stern reached her own goal in Ocala, with her newly assigned horse, Jukebox. Not an experienced show horse, Jukebox balked at entering the arena during the first week of shows. As Stern recalled, “He was kind of a mess.” But somehow, working with trainers Veninger and Walther, and through her own stubborn persistence, Stern and Jukebox worked out their differences and wound up with a second place in their last division class.
“Those were the best rides I ever had on Jukebox,” Stern emphasized. “Even though we never got a blue ribbon, I accomplished what I went to Ocala to do.”
Katie Holt had a unique experience and what she terms “an incredible opportunity,” when she leased a horse from owner Don Stewart to ride during the two weeks of shows.
“He let me try a few horses, but I immediately fell in love with Cayambe, an all ‘three-ring’ kind of horse,” said Holt. The new pair definitely clicked and Holt and Cayambe took second place in her very first jumper class. Holt wound up in the top three of all of her divisions, placing second in her medal classes.
Transitioning from Student to Professional
To coin a phrase, the “reins” of the entire Ocala experience were in the hands of graduate assistant Brittany Veninger. Responsible for nearly every facet of the trip, Veninger began planning months in advance, booking hotel rooms, purchasing plane tickets and arranging to haul horses. She and her assistant, senior Karolina Tovpenec, arrived at the show grounds a few days before the students and unloaded 50 bales of hay and assembled the grooming stalls.
“This was my first show as a young professional in the industry,” added Veninger. “This show was early mornings and long days, but some of my most cherished memories were made on this trip. “
Another young professional assisting the UF group was Pamela Pivaronas ’15. The founder of Equinity Therapy Solutions, Pivaronas and her employees travel to shows around the country helping to keep the horses in top physical condition. Her successful business venture is just one example of the variety of careers available in the equine industry.
When asked to summarize their Ocala HITS 2016 experience, the students couldn’t say enough about the value of the trip.
“I did exactly what my parents wanted me to do,” said Stern. I had a life changing experience. I feel as though I am a better rider because of Jukebox and I learned a lot about how to fix myself before I could fix my horse.”
McCaffrey added, “I can’t wait until I get the chance to go to a horse show again. I’m so lucky to go to a school that gives me these types of opportunities.”
Sarah Kachmarski, who rode her own horse, Finnegan, reflected the general feelings of the group. “I could not have imagined spending spring break with any other group of people doing anything else in the world. I had the time of my life, and I wish it could have gone on just one week longer.”