Blind Date
Two equestrian teams win big—including a national championship—on horses they've never met.

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Millbrook Marcy, photo by Lisa Nugent/UNH Photographic Services
Dressage team member Kat Williams-Barnard '09 rides Millbrook Marcy.

As long as Yarnelton is in the ring, the crowd has been warned not to cheer. This horse has tried to throw two riders off his back, and here at the national championship of intercollegiate dressage at the University of Findlay in Ohio, a round of applause could make him buck again.

On his back this time, however, is Kat Williams-Barnard '09, and Yarnelton is unruffled as she guides him through every nuance of a dressage test. She places third, and gives the UNH team a good chance of winning it all. As she leaves the ring, the restriction on applause turns her excited teammates and the UNH parents into a quiet riot of jumping bodies and silent, bobble-headed glee.

"It was hilarious," Williams-Barnard recalls. "I was looking around because I knew no one could clap." The team's coach, Sarah Hamilton '98, is "kind of stoic. But she was so happy--her hands over her head, jumping around."

Hamilton, director of the UNH Equine Program, has taken this team to the nationals each of the past three seasons. This year, her plan was accuracy and consistency. If everyone could finish near the top of her division and avoid major mistakes, she said, together they would boost the team average.

Dressage is often compared in its elegance to ballet. At the highest levels, communication between rider and horse is so seamless it is invisible, and a horse can be seen stepping in time to music. In intercollegiate dressage, there is no music and equestrians draw a random horse to ride. In a sport that has roots in the European aristocracy, the horse draw gives students who don't own their own horses a chance to compete.

Williams-Barnard's ride was inspired. Two years ago, she had a tumor removed from her liver and underwent a partial liver transplant. She was in the hospital for three months, and after she was discharged she struggled to even sit on a horse.

Her gutsy performance bolstered the team, Hamilton says. With strong performances from captain Kim Guyer '09, Casey Hoatson '10 (who amassed the second highest point total in any division) and Bridget Shea '09, UNH became the first public university to win the national championship in dressage. ~

Carolyn Kelsey, photo by Lisa Nugent/UNH Photographic Services
Carolyn Kelsey '11 competes in catch riding.

Jumping Fences with a Wild Card

Because it is so familiar, communication between equestrians and their horses draws frequent comparison to a marriage. But on this raw early April day, Kim Lynch '11 is brought together with an unknown horse just before she is called to the riding ring. The competition is called catch riding, and as the equestrian equivalent of a first date, it's not surprising that Lynch has butterflies.

At the International Horse Show Association Zone 1 championships at Mt. Holyoke College, riders from 22 colleges compete for a chance to go to the national championships. Lynch closes her eyes and imagines jumping cleanly over the nine fences that await her. She hopes Gothic, the large black gelding she has drawn today, will have something similar in mind.

Lynch has been riding horses since she was 6. In the Open Fences class, she is competing against the most polished collegiate catch riders in New England. UNH equestrian coach Christina Keim '98 says the discipline is "really about being able to get on a horse you don't know, draw on all your previous experience, and make it look like you've been riding this horse all your life."

Championship Ribbons, photo by Erin Gleason/UNH Photographic Services

Before Keim took over as coach in 2005, the team had never finished better than fifth out of 12 teams in its region. Last year UNH finished third, and this year moved up to second.

Lynch is the team's top rider. In her scouting, she says she can tell Gothic "rides easy and strong." As she waits to begin, a friend lets her know that Gothic is an experienced fence jumper. With this information as ballast, Lynch guides Gothic through the course so cleanly that she finishes with the best score. In a subsequent round she falls to second, but it's still good enough to advance to the nationals, the first UNH equestrian ever to reach that level in catch-riding competition. ~

Kurt Mullen '94 is a writer who lives in Newburyport, Mass.

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