BY SISSY WICKES
[Waco, Texas] April 21, 2018. The arena thundered and shook with the roar of united voices in a display of athletic pride, pandemonium, and solidarity rarely seen in the equestrian industry. As each rider entered the ring, the crowd became instantly silent and the air buzzed with excitement. The whole season came down to this – Southeastern Conference (SEC) rivals Georgia Bulldogs versus Auburn Tigers. The Tigers had just fallen to the Bulldogs in the SEC Championships in a heated match. Through an unlikely journey through matches with other schools, different brackets, competitions, rounds, and long days in the competition ring, the newly named Number 1 seed University of Georgia sat poised again to take on its bitter rival, Auburn University. Would the outcome be the same? Had the Georgia Bulldogs earned the indisputable ranking of Number 1 in NCAA Equestrian?
A thunderstorm raged outside. Wind, thunder, and lightning darkened the sky over Waco, TX as spectators walk out of the indoor arena to look up with worry. Inside, competition rages on – back and forth, point for point. The audience wearies under the pressure; something has to give. Auburn’s Caitlin Boyle has an opportunity to clinch the win. She walks in to the arena and delivers a performance to be remembered. The crowd’s reaction is deafening. In moments, the noise level abates as the Auburn Tiger fans await the score. The announcer delivers the verdict – 91 and 87. Auburn clinched the NCAA Equestrian Championship title! Again, the crowd brings down the house. Realizing that there are two rides left to conclude the event, the cacophony quiets for the next competitor. As the gates open for the Georgia Bulldog rider, the lights go out and the arena is blackened. Caitlin Boyle knocked the lights out of the NCAA Championships.
The Auburn Tigers Hunt Seat Team – all NCAA eligible next year as well – consists of Hayley Ianotti (Junior), Ashton Alexander (Junior), Taylor St. Jacques (Freshman), and Boyle (Junior). All have storied junior careers – with major equitation wins, extensive jumper experience, and International Hunter Derby finishes under their belts- and many, many catch rides.
Boyle credits catch riding with the basis to her NCAA success. “That experience is what makes all the top riders at the top. There is a level of horsemanship that’s involved with being able to get on and deal with what you’ve got. You have four minutes to warm up. You know you’re not going to be able to fix the horse in those four minutes, so you have to be able to adapt very quickly. There’s a lot of different factors that come in – the crowd and the cheering and how you handle every moment is really important. That comes up a lot when you’re catch riding. I’ve been sent in on horses that wouldn’t jump around for their owners – no warm-up jump, just leg up at the in gate and go in. That’s set me up incredibly for this format.”
Ianotti, Alexander, and Boyle all joined the team together and all also have the same major of Family Business and Entrepreneurship. The comradery and support of knowing each other is evident – they can be seen talking, laughing, and giving each other pointers as they prepare to compete. They have classes in the morning and practice in the afternoon. Weekends include time to themselves, unless there is a competition coming up.
“Between the SEC’s (finals) and here, we practiced more than we ever have and harder than we ever have for this and I think that’s why it turned out so well. We were practicing twice as hard as we were before. SEC’s was a little bit of a wake-up call,” said Boyle, discussing their fall to the Georgia Bulldogs earlier in the 2018 competition finals season.
Riding as a team and working and practicing together pushed the Tigers to a new level. The pressure is immense – not just a rider and her crew that helps her get to the ring, but also the entire Auburn community.
“We have such a great sense of the Auburn family – everyone knows what you’re doing. If you’re wearing Auburn Equestrian apparel, they’ll congratulate you or say good luck to you everywhere – like at the grocery store and every random place. There are so many people watching and you just want to do well for them. Riding for a team is very different – I feel so much more pressure here. There’s not just a crowd cheering for you and your teammates relying on you, but your whole school is also keeping in touch,” explained Boyle.
After showing four horses over 10 hours, on the final day, Boyle came out of the ring with her point and literally shut the house down when the lights went out. The crowd waited a moment and the generators kicked back on, leaving the competition ready to finish up.
As a leader on the team, Boyle is looking forward to another great year as a Senior with a new group of Freshmen coming in to mentor. Boyle explains:
“You feel some pressure being older on the team for sure. When I was a Freshman, we had Elizabeth Benson as our Senior and she was the most incredible (person). I could trust her and tell her anything – I had the most respect for her. I think that that’s so important as a leader – that they can be trusting, but you also have a lot of respect from everyone. I want people to do the best that they can and be horsemen and have good sportsmanship. Sportsmanship is such a big deal – when you see poor sportsmanship, it’s not pretty. I would like to encourage the younger members of the team that this is for your team. This isn’t all about yourself anymore, you have to adapt to the team mentality, and it’s different. This is such an individual sport and knowing that you have other people’s back and other people have your back can be difficult to show and teach. It’s important that you show it more than you teach it.
Next year, we’re not losing any starters and we’re definitely gaining people. It’s really exciting. I’m going to be a diehard Auburn fan forever. Even when I’m gone, I want this team to be as strong as they can be. We have so many new Freshmen coming in next year – straight from Medal Finals and their home programs. It’s really exciting to see the talent we have coming in.”
For more on NCEA Results, visit CollegiateEquestrian.com
About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist, an autism advocate and Editor of The Plaid Horse. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.
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