By Georgie Hammond and Meagan DeLisle
Each year, thousands of equestrians of all ages flock to Wellington, escaping harsh winter weather elsewhere to enjoy near-perfect temperatures while competing in the winter equestrian capital of the world.
While this year’s events look slightly different due to the pandemic, young equestrians are doing everything they can to take the usual challenges of the sport and the additional tribulations of these unprecedented times all in stride.
“Young equestrians face many growing pains as they progress in their riding and move through the different phases of the sport,” said Geoff Teall, one of the country’s most prominent equestrian trainers and judges. “This year, especially, these athletes are having to adapt and change all of the time to overcome obstacles, both physically and mentally. There are many moving parts that go into the success of a young rider, whether they are just learning to ride, moving up to jump new heights, or adjusting to life changes that alter the way they compete in the sport, so it is vital that they maintain level headedness and have the support they need.”
At 13 years old, Ava Scharbo is just starting to find her footing in the show ring. While she has four years of experience competing, Scharbo recently reached one of the biggest milestones in a young rider’s career as they continue to grow and develop their skills: transitioning from a pony to a horse.
“I was definitely a little nervous getting on a larger, stronger animal,” Scharbo explained. “The biggest challenge for me has been taking time to go back and revisit things I thought I already knew. My trainer, Geoff Teall, has taught me that in order to move forward, you have to sometimes go back to basics first.”
With the progression from pony to horse comes a jump in competition level as well, something Scharbo found intimidating at first. With help from Teall, however, she is learning to manage her nerves and persevere, even through the difficult times, by taking things one step at a time. Scharbo has also made efforts to maintain her confidence in her riding by practicing nearly every day, something that has recently been made easier thanks to her family’s move to Wellington to become full-time residents.
“If there’s a magic potion for nerves, I haven’t found it yet! This sport challenges me every day I get on my horses, whether I am in the show ring or not,” Scharbo said. “The one thing that keeps me going is knowing that there is always another ride and there is always another show. If I didn’t have a good lesson, or a good show, I need to break my ride down stride-by-stride and figure out why, so the next ride goes better than the last.”
Like Scharbo, 14-year-old Raine Whitman has confronted her fair share of trials as a young equestrian. In January 2021, Whitman started a fresh partnership with a new horse, a shift that takes copious amounts of patience and diligence in order to be successful. While this is not her first horse, Whitman’s junior riding career is at a pivotal point as she gears up to start competing in the “Big Eq,” one of the most competitive divisions in junior equestrian sport. Whitman experienced excellent results with her previous horse at some of the nation’s most prestigious competitions in 2020.
However, now more than ever, her resilience is being tested as she learns her new horse and makes strides toward the upper level of junior competition.
“The hardest part of any transition is trusting in the process and not allowing frustration to get the better of you if the results are different than your expectations. It’s important to keep working hard and stay focused,” she said. “Thankfully, the transition to my new horse, Clearano Z, happened early in the season, so it was the perfect time to get straight into the show ring and start building our relationship. He was already at my barn, Carriage Hill Farms, before I purchased him. That was a huge help for me in understanding the type of ride he needs because my trainers already knew him really well. He is a very willing partner and enjoys his job, which made the process of learning a new partner really fun.”
With a positive mindset and a strong support system in place, Whitman has turned the challenges before her into learning opportunities every step of the way. In true athlete fashion, she has used her moments of uncertainty to fuel her ambition and drive.
“I think hard work and dedication have helped me progress and move up through the divisions,” Whitman said. “I am focused in my training on learning the necessary skills to get to the next level. I am dedicated to learning as much as I can outside of my lessons as well, like riding without stirrups, and riding extra horses or ponies to gain experience while strengthening my leg and balance, which improves all aspects of my riding.”
For 29-year-old Brittany Hildebrand, the transition from her junior career to now competing as an adult amateur all the while balancing a busy school schedule posed a new set of challenges that many young equestrians of a similar age find themselves facing. As a graduate student in the marketing program at Baylor University, Hildebrand not only has to juggle a demanding school schedule, but she is also very involved in the care and maintenance of her own show horses.
“It has definitely been a trial-and-error process,” Hildebrand said. “I’ve had to work really hard to find what schedule works best for me and my horses in this phase of my life. I’m very lucky to have a great support system in place with my trainers Conan and Becky O’Connor and my barn team, who help me every day, but I’m extremely hands-on and active in all aspects of my horses’ management.”
While each week looks different based on the needs of her horses and her rigorous school schedule, Hildebrand has settled into a bit of a rhythm while showing in Wellington this season.
“Mondays are our off-days for the horses, so I can be fully dedicated to school. My classes are in six-week, online sessions, and while most people might think online school is easier, the turnaround time for assignments is tight. Other days, I typically am at the barn from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then can give myself an hour break before diving into my schoolwork through the evening. When I’m showing, I have to get a bit more creative with my schedule. If I have a big assignment due, I may need to rely more on my support team to help me. Every week looks a little different, but we adjust to make sure the horses are getting the daily management they need and to allow myself the time necessary to be successful in school.”
With her recent move up in competition level to the High Amateur-Owners and an overall goal of establishing consistency in her riding this circuit, maintaining a flexible rhythm is essential in all areas of Hildebrand’s life at this stage.
No matter what stage of their riding they might be in, young equestrians of all ages must demonstrate an innate ability to roll with the punches and adjust to new obstacles on a daily basis.
From transitioning to new divisions, adapting to new horses and demonstrating the ability to balance all aspects of their busy lives, the hurdles may seem never ending. But it is the passion for the sport and their love for the horses that unites these riders, who are at very different places in their lives — and those two things make all of the trials and tribulations a worthwhile endeavor.