THREE-PEAT! Indian Creek Equestrian Earns Third-Straight Title — and Respect
by Katherine Fominykh, Capital Gazette News
When the banner heralding Indian Creek equestrian’s first two consecutive championships went up, team advisor Nancy Chalkley told her athletic director, Tyler Larkin, that he’s going to have to get on a ladder and add 2020.
Just four years after starting its varsity program, Eagles Equestrian captured its third-straight Inter-School Horse Show Series title, edging rival Oakdale, 332-297, for the crown after a close race at the final show in Poolesville on Sunday.
The Eagles had stepped onto the grounds of NFF Stables with just a 14-point overall series lead on the field, and certain wild card factors — spooky horses, for instance — made the waiting game as judges calculated team scores over the next day ever more nerve-racking. Just four points separated the Eagles from their competitors at Sunday’s show.
But now, three seven-year competing seniors will walk away as champions from the journey that began when they were just children. “I’m just happy I get to leave on a high note, and leave the team better than I found it and get to do this with my best friends,” senior Simone Brown said.
Thinking about that banner brushing the likes of basketball, baseball, lacrosse — all of which don’t have any more titles than equestrian — makes senior Danielle Heffner emotional. She and two other seniors, Brown and Brianna Allen, had ridden for the Eagles since their sixth grade year, when the team still competed as junior varsity — carrying home third, fourth-place ribbons. At the time, equestrian was an invisible sport within their school. Classmates of the Indian Creek equestrian team members didn’t really understand what the riders did, and therefore declared it not a sport. The riders loved to challenge other athletes to try it. “I think we’re kind of underestimated. I think we’re one of the best sports teams at Indian Creek, and we don’t get a lot of credit for it,” Allen said. “But I know we’re great. We’ve won three championships in a row. I try to tell all my peers we’re great.”
Traipsing through a mile of snow in dead-winter to collect a horse for outdoor practice, year after year after year, was all done out of the public eye. Brutally hot summers spent under saddle were, too.
When the school added equestrian’s banner, it felt like a watershed moment. “We sort of educated a whole community to what it means. They responded to it, and we earned their respect,” Chalkley said, “because that banner is hung in the gym, right next to volleyball.”
In 2016, Indian Creek clinched the JV title and moved onto the big stage. In their first varsity season, Indian Creek became reserve champions. “I was just really, really happy. We’d come so far, not winning anything, getting last every time, kind of being a joke team. They didn’t take us seriously. Equestrian team wasn’t really a team you thought was good, or stood out,” Heffner said. “Now we’ve won champion (three times) in a row. That’s kind of big.
Coaches Brittany Tice and Debbie Sanders, from Enticements Stables at Obligation Farms, said to the riders, “Here are your goals. I think you can be champions next year.” And they did, rising to champion in 2018. And then the year after that. And the year after that.
“Really, it’s so unique because you don’t practice every day on campus like you would basketball (etc.). It takes a lot of dedication and logistical planning to do this for so many years and to set the goal every year,” Chalkley said.
The Final Show
In common sports, an athlete is expected to sweat, show exertion, move their bodies. But under saddle, the first two stages of competition are all about performing basic stages of a horse’s movement — walk, trot, posting trot (which is rising up and down in the saddle) and canter (a sort of half-gallop) — to invisible perfection. The judges shouldn’t be able to see you so much as flinch; your heels must be down, your back must be straight. On a horse a rider knows that seamless elegance comes more easily. There’s a relationship there. A rider can read her horse like a worn, dog-eared book and vice versa. At ISHS shows, Indian Creek doesn’t have that privilege.
While their top rivals transport their own horses to the shows, the Eagles must use whatever horses the stables have available, and a tiny list of basic notes on that horse. That means Indian Creek riders have just minutes aboard to get to know their mount’s strengths, weaknesses, behaviors, etc.
“You have to figure out how you’re going to read your horse and them make them do what you need them to do to earn the points,” Chalkley said. “… It’s risky, but it makes them a better all-around horseman. And they’ve gotten better at it each year.”
And Sunday’s draw proved to be more of an obstacle to Indian Creek than usual. Allen was given two horses for the Intermediate class under saddle and over fences (the jumping portion), a fuzzy black-bay named Sushi and a stocky bay named Magic, because only Magic could jump.
When teammate Rowan Wolod dismounted Magic and handed her to Allen, she told her, don’t pull on her. Magic doesn’t like that. And yet, stopping a horse, typically, requires pulling on them.
“It’s pretty frustrating. I had to get on a horse and jump it and I didn’t even know how it moved. It’s really scary, actually,” Allen said. “It was completely different. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how it would react to my movements.”
The show organizers provided two horses for the Advanced riders in group A and B, which included Brown and Heffner. Before the show, organizers told Indian Creek one, a soft-golden palomino named Twilight, threw a shoe and had a new one put on just before the show, making her a little tender-footed.
In that moment, the Eagles needed an emotional anchor. The team swirled around Heffner as they searched for Twilight in a maze of curious horse noses sticking out of stalls. Heffner tacked Twilight up. She drifted over to where Brown was mounting the other horse, and led Brown into the ring.
When seniors graduated the program, leadership came to Heffner naturally. Outside of the team, Heffner mentors others through the 4H. Her work earned the senior, who’s heading to Delaware Valley University (Pa.) to study livestock, the Anne Arundel County Parks and Recreation Association Youth of the Year Award.
Part of why Indian Creek’s program swelled from single-digits is by Heffner’s mission to recruit. Chalkley’s daughter, a soccer player, competed for four years because of it. Makayla Cutler, a hunter-jumper, joined up, even though transitioning from hunter-jumper to equitation is like field hockey to lacrosse. Everyone Heffner brought in contributed points to Indian Creek’s season-end total. “We have had riders on the team, because of her, ride all summer, set goals and qualify for the team. She has brought in most of the girls on the team,” Chalkley said.
Coaches can’t play an all-encompassing role during shows like a basketball coach would a game. They’re focusing on a rider in the ring, and there is where the team aspect of a school squad comes in. While one rides, others, like Heffner, makes observations to pass along or shares tips. “That type of leadership? It’s almost coaching,” Chalkley said.
The other horse Indian Creek was given for the Advanced class, Rocket, was a big lanky ginger chestnut Thoroughbred. For those who don’t know horses, Thoroughbreds are the divas of the equine world. As Brown and Rocket half walked, half danced into the ring, Heffner said, “It’ll be a miracle if no one falls off of him.” It was partially a joke, partially grim. She’d been assigned the thoroughbred later in the morning.
Fellow senior Tatiana Bachara drew Twilight and managed to, mostly, get her mount moving as a judge called “walk,” “trot,” with just a hiccups one could expect when one’s foot is feeling stiff. She placed third in the first round of flat classes, fourth the second, and then second over fences. But Rocket was aptly named; every twitch the jumpy horse made suggested he’d take flight at any moment. And yet, Brown, headed to Savannah School of Art and Design (Ga.) to design facilities for horse therapy, was smooth. She’d ridden horses at other shows so difficult the organizers withdrew them before other riders could use them. She made the transitions on Rocket, mostly, without clear flaws. “Simone is a very accomplished rider, and she has ridden some really tough, tough horses,” Chalkley said. Brown, however, placed sixth in both equitation rounds, and fourth over the jumps. At the announcement, her teammates recoiled in surprise.
Like cheerleading and gymnastics, equitation scoring is at the mercy of a very friendly but still opinionated judge. That in mind, Indian Creek enters the ring with two team goals in mind: don’t fall off, and do one’s best.
“And we may or may not be seen at that moment when we’re at our best, when they’re watching six to 12 horses in the ring,” Chalkley said. “If that horse decides it’s going to get spooked by that window, as so many horses did … the way the sun was shifting through the windows — things like that people outside of equestrian don’t realize, are all part of what we do.” Heffner rode Rocket to similar placements, but didn’t, as she had forecast, fall off. Not like her previous session at NFF in the fall when, during the over fences she went over one jump and her horse didn’t. “I kind of lost that confidence I had,” Heffner said. “Really just didn’t want to do it. If you’d asked me to jump a couple of months ago, I’d say no. But equestrian’s all about working through that, getting back up, trying again, keeping on doing it.”
Horses are able to read emotions, so, during her rides with Rocket, Heffner rehearsed tranquility. Where frustration began to build, her teammates came in, to calm her down. “It’s very easy to get frustrated with the horses, but you just have to remember, these horses are different, you can’t fight them,” Allen said. “Danielle definitely struggles with that sometimes. I try to talk to her about just calming down, because she gets frustrated. We all get frustrated sometimes.”
When all of Indian Creek’s riders had gone on Sunday, the team stood together. Even then, when her third varsity title was still as tangible as smoke, gratitude rode Heffner’s mind. Winning, in the end, wasn’t what it was about.
“I’m proud of our team, either way," she said Sunday. "Winning would be great to end off, but we’ve been doing this for so long, we’ve become a family. Being together is all I want. Ending on the right note.”