Leaning forward with confidence and feeling the horse’s mouth through the reins, Hritz holds her breath as she comes off the seventh fence and heads straight for the final jump. She feels the horse quicken but gives a slight check with her reins and sinks deeper into the saddle. The horse steadies himself, and she counts down the strides—three, two, one. Her fingers soften on the reins and she flows forward with his leap. The fence is cleared. The landing is smooth.
Hritz smiles. She knows she’s just put in a winning ride. It is, for her and for Xavier, a monumental occasion—the first blue ribbon for the University’s newly formed equestrian club. Another member wins two ribbons in the flat class, where riders are judged at the walk, trot and canter, and the team celebrates with pictures.
Today, as a new school year unfolds and a new riding season begins, Hritz and her teammates expect to make giant strides. Last year, they struggled with the competition, which was tougher than expected. But coaches Jim and Gwen Arrigon, seasoned collegiate equestrian program managers, have all eight members returning, and the team has attracted new members, some with national experience.
“We have a lot to offer because we know the collegiate system, so Xavier won’t have to muddle through,” Jim says. “We hope to have up to 25 to 30 kids in time.”
But it’s been one step at a time. The first was taken when the Arrigons left Miami University after 17 years of running the college’s program. Aware that Xavier did not have a program, they made some contacts to help gauge interest. Flyers appeared last fall, and the phone started ringing. One call was from Hritz, a junior who’d ridden during high school. She became the club’s representative, helping it gain recognition and funding from the club sports council, which substantially increased the team’s funding for this year.
The Arrigons provide the horses, the training and the equipment at their barn about 45 minutes northwest of campus. Students ride at least once a week under Jim’s experienced eye. There are 25 horses to choose from, but the Arrigons insist the students change horses often. “They make you a better rider,” says Gwen.
That’s also the way college shows work—you ride what you get, saddle and all. “You draw a popsicle stick with a horse’s name on it, and that’s the horse you ride,” Jim says. “You have as little as 15 minutes to get to know the horse.” No practice jumps. No warm-up ring. Just a little information about the horse’s habits—good and bad—and up you go.
The policy reflects the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association’s mission, which is to lower the cost and level the playing field for young riders. “Everyone has the same chance with the different horses,” he says.
The association has about 350 member colleges. Xavier is one of nine schools in the Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky region, competing from October through spring. Last year, Xavier rode in eight shows, struggling until the last two. “The kids sort of underestimated how competitive it would be,” Jim says. “But college shows are tough. It took until March to win ribbons.”
Hritz is optimistic as she looks forward to the team’s first show in October. “We have a month and a half to practice,” she says. “I’m looking forward to getting back into it.”