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UCI Equestrian Team Gallops into its First Taste of Action

Courtesy of The UCI Equestrian Team
Courtesy of The UCI Equestrian Team
(From right to left) Chelsea Treser, Melanie Henderson, Caitlin Saunders, Michele Malkasian and Neeka Farhad
In its first competitive year the UC Irvine Equestrian Team ranked 10th in Zone 8, Region 2 of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. However, more exciting than the team’s placement was the journey getting there.

Led by Neeka Farhad, who serves as the team’s president, the group began to develop when Farhad was still a freshman riding horses at the Equestrian Center of the Orange County Fairgrounds. Practicing under trainer Tina Davies, the wheels began turning for the team when Farhad realized that another rider at the fairgrounds, Melanie Henderson, also went to UCI. With prior experience working on a collegiate equestrian team at UC Santa Cruz, Davies stepped up as the team’s coach and the nucleus of the team was formed.

Now a sophomore, Farhad has led her team to earn multiple second-place ribbons, co-host an event and support one another.

Farhad promoted the team through posting flyers and word-of-mouth, which drew the attention of Caitlin Saunders, Chelsea Treser and Michele Malkasian, who form the team’s current quintet.

Although all of its members had been riding long before they came to UCI, the hectic life of college students has limited their time for riding. The UCI equestrian team offers its members an opportunity to remain regular riders.

“I’ve been riding since I was 7 and competing since I was about 8 … when I was younger and had more time I used to show once a month … I would like to keep riding as long as I can,” Saunders said.

While the cost associated with equestrianism may not be ideal for the budget of a college student, the UCI equestrian team works around this problem.

“With horseback riding, it’s a vanity sport. People have so much money and they will spend endless amounts of money on the right horse, the right breed and all the right people on the sidelines, the right trainers this and that; but with this league, it’s free of that,” Malkasian said.

IHSA events require riders to pick their horses via random lottery, which balances out the playing field. Otherwise, according to Farhad, riders could bring their own top-level horses, which can cost thousands of dollars to breed, train and maintain.

Although owning a horse has its advantages, Farhad explained that being required to ride new horses has its benefits as well.

“The advantages to not owning a horse is that you will become more well-rounded and learn,” Farhad said.

Due to the team’s small infrastructure, it was only able to compete in two meets this season. One was held in November at UC San Diego and the team co-hosted another with UCLA in February.

There are two types of events in IHSA meets, which are fences and flats. Fences tests riders on their ability to have a horse jump over a series of fences in an organized manner. Flats are limited to walk, trot and canter exercises that test a rider’s ability to control a horse. These two events are broken down into four basic classes, which are open, intermediate, novice and alumni. Open is essentially the expert level, while novice is just what the name entails. The alumni class is unique in that it is not a skill level, but is only offered to alumni members of a team’s school. Flats have two additional classes that are not included in the fences events, which are walk/trot and walk/trot/canter.

Because the group consists of five active members, the team did not have enough competitors to take part in all of the classes of the events.

At the UCSD meet, Farhad and Henderson competed in novice fences and novice flats; Saunders competed in intermediate flats; Treser competed in intermediate fences and open flats; Malkasian competed in walk/trot/canter. The lineup of the UCI/UCLA meet was nearly identical, except Saunders competed in novice jumping instead of Farhad. This is because only two riders could compete in the class of each event.
At the UCSD meet, Malkasian earned a first-place ribbon, while Farhad, Treser and Saunders earned second-place ribbons and Henderson earned a fifth-place ribbon. Saunders picked up two third-place ribbons at the UCI/UCLA meet, with Treser picking up another third-place ribbon. Farhad earned a fifth-place ribbon.

According to Farhad, members must understand their horses in order to earn ribbons; as the equestrian saying goes, “In our sport the ball has a mind of its own.”

Despite great efforts, those who earned higher-valued ribbons actually appeared to be doing less than their lower-ranked counterparts.

“The key to being a good rider is to make it look as if you’re not doing anything at all,” Farhad said.

However, while talented riders may not appear to do anything when it comes to showing, the team’s members were visibly active leading up to the shows. This was more apparent in the build-up to the UCI/UCLA meet; according to Farhad, she had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the event in order to get everything organized.

Even in the days leading up to the event, the action seldom let up. The team had to organize pamphlets and packets, get release forms prepared for Elvenstar, the arena where the event was held, prepare add/drop cards in case any teams wanted to either add or drop riders from an event and organize invoices. Invoices were used to collect payment for riding in the show, which was then poured back into the financial pool in preparation for hosting future events.

Although Farhad believed that the UCI/UCLA event was successful, another obstacle has recently confronted the team.

In 2008, the Orange County Fair Board of Directors issued plans to close down the Equestrian Center in order to make room for a parking lot. Because the UCI equestrian team practices exclusively at the Orange County Fairgrounds, this could kill the team, according to Henderson. Although the group could potentially move its practices to an equestrian center located in San Juan Capistrano, this would upset the structure of the team, which can more conveniently practice at the Orange County Fairgrounds. In order to combat the closure, individuals who ride at the Equestrian Center have banded together to start a petition. According to Henderson, thus far the group has collected roughly 5,000 signatures.

Henderson believes that it is a cause worth fighting for because she values the chance to work with new riders and establish a legacy for the team at UCI.

“[I’ve] done a lot of stuff while I’ve been at school, but this is by far the most rewarding experience I’ve had,” Henderson said.

Though the team may have a while to go before it reaches the top of its region, Henderson explained that the team is about more than competition.

“As far as planning, [our] goal for the equestrian team … is to have it stay past us being here. [Our goal] is not really being the best, but we want it to be here … I’d love to be able to come back to visit Irvine in 10 years and for there to still be an equestrian team here,” Henderson said.

Wrapping up its season in February, each member is looking to stay in shape as they prepare for the next round of IHSA shows in the fall. According to Farhad, the team will host its own event at Elvenstar next year, tentatively planned for January or February. Although this may be a bold move, Farhad is confident that her team can handle the workload.

“We’ll just have to do more because [last] time … everything we needed to do was split between our team and the UCLA team, so now we’re just going to take on all the tasks,” Farhad said.

Those interested in finding out more about the UCI equestrian team can do so by e-mailing