Several times a year, UNC’s equestrian team wakes up early, loads into cars and travels to a different part of North Carolina to draw random horses, take the saddle and compete for ribbons.
Different members compete at different shows, depending on their experience and the details of the competition, but every member gets at least four chances to put their weekly practices and lessons to use.
Shows can be draining, and the trips are often long journeys, but members say the bonding experience makes it worth it.
“Sometimes it’s not super amazing in the moment,” said Lauren Chi, the team’s treasurer and a sophomore studying biomedical and health sciences engineering. “It can be cold, wet and rainy — but it’s definitely a fun experience to look back on.”
Though prepping for regular-season horse shows lies at the center of the club’s agenda, the team works to cultivate a tight-knit community above all else. This year’s current senior captain, Hailey Johnson, articulated the team’s focus on grounded growth.
“Generally, our goal is to increase team engagement and provide an environment in which our members are growing as athletes and improving their knowledge both in and out of the saddle," she said in an email. "While winning competitions and doing well within our Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) team would be nice, we primarily want members to enjoy their time with each other and with our horses.”
This year’s junior captain, sophomore Avery Matthews, emphasized that the collaborative aspect of the team is special to her. She’s been riding since she was five years old and had yet to experience such a strong community before joining the team.
“Having people to share the sport with is really exciting. Depending on where you grew up riding, sometimes you’re not really riding with anybody your own age so there’s not people you could really talk to about this major shared interest,” Matthews said.
Last year, the team recovered from a missed year due to the pandemic and was not able to do as many social events as they had hoped. Matthews said the team focused on keeping the program afloat, as they struggled with few upperclassmen or experienced team members. This year though, the team plans to expand its activities and roster.
With reduced COVID restrictions, the club plans to increase its campus outreach and team bonding activities like volunteering and dinner parties. The team specifically plans to host watch parties for major riding events throughout the year, Matthews said.
This year, the club also hopes to expand the accessibility of the team and the sport. Annual dues vary, but are usually around $1,600.Matthews recognized that equestrian is an expensive sport by nature, due to animal and farmland expenses.
“We’re all very cognizant of the fact that it’s not super accessible, and we welcome and include everyone, but it’s hard to do that when the funding is not there. It’s not our choice, but it’s something that we’re aware of and we’re really hoping to be able to correct in the future,” Matthews said.
By increased fundraising, the equestrian team plans to make horseback riding a more available opportunity this year for those who might not be able to afford it otherwise.
“Even working football and basketball games, we did that to raise money for the team to handle different expenses and standing at the gates and freezing your butts off is a bonding experience," Chi said. "Just the community aspect and how you are able to form a whole different circle of friends is really cool.”
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