By Karen Zhou
The rays of the afternoon sun are beginning to soften. She sits there, a straight line forming from her shoulder to her hip to her heel. Her elbows are bent, back straight, tailbone pressing the saddle slightly. She makes sure her heels point down, toes up. She wraps the reigns around her ring fingers and her thumbs, like her toes, remain up. Always.
These are all little nuances, but for fourth-year UCI student, Chelsea Treser, they are second nature, born out of nearly two decades of practice and training.
And there’s something about him, as well. He’s fit, but not overly muscular. His coat is shiny, his black eyes scorching. He has a one-of-a-kind black tattoo inside his lip and wads of cotton are stuffed in his ears to prevent him from being distracted. He is Wilbur, a thoroughbred, and that tattoo indicates that he was once a lean, mean racehorse, one who was used as a back up in the movie, Seabiscuit.
Chelsea is practicing on Wilbur this particular afternoon, under the watchful eye of trainer Tina Davey at the Elvenstar Orange County Stables in the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center. Chelsea is President of the UCI Equestrian Team, while Tina, a former member of the team at UC Santa Cruz, helped found the team in 2008.
“He’s lazy!” Chelsea laughs, before giving Wilbur a reassuring pat and nudging him on to transition from trot to canter.
Because they compete as a part of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA), UCI Equestrian can take advantage of reduced costs. What normally costs about $500 to “show,” or compete, only costs IHSA members $45. They will continue to be eligible for IHSA as long as they are full-time undergraduate students maintaining good academic standing or compete as alumni.
However, with the very nice monetary perk does come a difference in showings.
Before they compete, collegiate riders will randomly draw a number that corresponds to the host school’s horses. Riders who are not competing in the day’s events are brought in to warm-up the horses, as the competitors are not allowed to.
Although the warm-up riders give the competing riders what Tina refers to as a “cheat sheet,” which details how the horses jumps feel, including if they’re particularly strong or an extra push.
“It’s definitely challenging,” Chelsea says. “Your body’s cold and, mentally, you’re not quite in the competition yet.”
“Outside the collegiate circle, you will get to warm up on your own horse,” explains Tina. “But, in an effort to keep this affordable for college students, you don’t get to ride your own horse for IHSA.”
Keeping this in mind, Tina makes students like Chelsea practice with different horses to try and get them used to reading the horse’s antics immediately.
After a short walk to trot to canter, Chelsea rides Wilbur to the course, preparing to practice some jumps. After their first jump, Wilbur lands hard on both front feet at the same time.
“He’s strong,” she tells Tina, who is nodding her head nearby. “I think I need to soften it a bit. I can’t release the reign that much in the air.”
Chelsea turns around to try the jump again.
“When you get more advanced, it’s not so much the technique as it is the way you communicate with the horse. For Chelsea, she practices more on the feeling.”
There’s something beautiful about this picture. With the setting sun and glowing orange sky as their backdrop, Wilbur and Chelsea continue walking, trotting, cantering, jumping, repeating.
Her eyes point the way and he obeys. Their rhythm is totally in sync. It’s relaxing and soothing, this constant up and down, the dust kicking up slightly behind them.
Although there are three different styles, collegiate riders only show Equitation, which is based primarily on horsemanship. They are judged on how well they ride, their control and posture and how they help, and not interfere, with the horse’s jump.
The other two — Hunter and Jumper — are focused more on the horse’s abilities. For the former, the show is judged on the horse and its movements. The latter is based on speed and the consistency and cleanliness of the jumps.
Because IHSA does not allow riders to use their own horse, their shows are judged primarily on the rider’s skills.
Thus, UCI Equestrian can only show in Equitation. Under Tina’s guidance, the team has developed tremendously over the past three seasons.
Two of them, including Chelsea, have already earned enough points over the past 10 shows to qualify for Regionals, with two other members almost there.
Regionals will be held at Elvenstar on March 4 this year. From there, the top two will advance to Zones in April. The top two at Zones will travel to Kentucky for Nationals in May.
Improving each year, UCI Equestrian looks to qualify some of its riders to their very first Nationals.
“We’re definitely looking forward to continued success,” says Chelsea. “Most importantly, though, we hope to continue having fun and developing great friendships with one another.”
“Competing at the collegiate level is huge. It’s just a great way to do the sport and anyone from any level can join, even if they don’t want to show. They can just come join us and our passion for riding,” Tina says.
As the sky begins to darken, Wilbur is getting antsy, ready for rest and more than ready to eat some hay. Chelsea obligingly swings herself off, holding the reigns closely and moving to Wilbur’s left side, as every rider inherently does. And together, girl and horse walk off into the sunset.