In sports, personalities matter.
For equestrians, it’s no different. Grace Hannah, a 15-year-old at Brookville Area High School, it’s a matter of knowing what kind of a horse she’s dealing with before navigating a Hunter/Jumper event.
She settled on “Diva” when it came to describing her 9-year-old stallion (male) horse called Jet. Or sometimes, he’s just a jerk, she added.
But that’s normal to the challenging sport that focuses on a rider’s ability to direct a horse through a course that has a series of turns and jumps, mostly 3-feet high, where it’s not so much about speed and clearing jumps. It’s mostly how a judge perceives how the horse strides, positioning and how the ride is presented.
“The way you ride isn’t how some judges like it and sometimes you’ll have a good ride, but the judge won’t place you high,” Hannah said. “It’s really now how well or high you place, but it’s about having a good day and improving from the last time you rode.”
An event is set up in three classes, or courses, taking two minutes apiece.
“It seems a lot faster than that. It’s a lot of focus, so everything passes super-fast,” she said.
There are eight to 10 jumps per “class” as it’s called and the distance between jumps is vital to the planning, for instance.
“If it’s 72 feet, she has to figure out how many strides the horse can comfortably make while looking smooth doing it,” said Grace’s mother Alyssa, who rode horses as a child and competed in college as well. “You have to be able to feel that. You can’t look down and if your horse refuses a jump, you lose points or are disqualified. Horses have bad days, too, like people.”
The younger Hannah started riding as a 6-year-old and has competed since age eight. While the COVID-19 problems marred much of the sports schedule for 2020, Hannah was able to compete throughout the year, although currently things are on hold.
The state’s 4H competition schedule was canceled this year, but she’s a four-time state placewinner in 4H. In 2018, Hannah was runner-up in the Equitation division, which judges ridership ability. She finished fourth in Hunter jumping in 2019.
Hannah finished fourth at the Hunter Derby in Chagrin, Ohio, in July. Depending on how COVID mitigation affects organized events, she’s looking at her next event in January in Ohio and possibly Florida in February.
This past fall, she rode with her Interscholastic Equestrian Association team, Halfmoon Valley of State College, in two events in November and that schedule continues as well after the holiday break at some point.
It’s a year-round sport, with tons of commitment, and patience.
With a previous horse, Bling, Hannah had to work hard to get him comfortable working. It took time to figure him out.
“He had a very big personality and when he decided that he didn’t really want to do something, it was really hard to get him to do it,” she said. “So it took a lot of time to get to a point where he would listen better and I could know how to work around that and not make him angrier.”
And with Jet, sometime it’s a challenge of figuring out what’s wrong.
“Jet had some back issues and it was caused by the saddle we were using and that was causing him problems,” Hannah said. “When we realized that’s what it was after the first class, we changed it and then the saddle was more comfortable for him and he went from being very uncomfortable to doing so much better and we had fantastic rides.”
Prior to that, it’s just getting in time to build that relationship that any sport needs, like a teammate.
“You’re looking for durability and how you get along with them is a really big factor,” Hannah added. “But after you have a horse, you spend a lot of time with them. You take care of them, feed them, clean their stalls and keep them clean. You build a relationship, so it takes a lot of time. And riding them, you figure out how to ask them to do different things and what they like and don’t like. It’s building a bond.”
Caring for the family’s horses is a multi-hour job daily, from feeding to grooming to cleaning the stalls. Jet cannot grow a winter coat, so to keep her coat shiny and presentable for competitions, Hannah must use a set of blankets of various weights to keep her show horse warm, depending on the temperature.
“She is her horse’s person,” Grace’s mom Alyssa said. “They pick a person and connect with them and Grace can get Jet to do things that nobody else could do. If I go into the stall and try and move him over, he looks at me like I’m crazy, then Grace walks in he just steps aside. They truly have a bond that has to develop. She’s in the barn two or three times a day, a couple hours each day, feeding, changing. We have seven horses, so it’s several hours a day.”
Grace hopes to continue her riding at the college level, meaning more training time ahead, and quality time with her horses.
“It’s like learning anything else,” Hannah summed up. “You have to put in a lot of time, be committed and you have to really like doing it because if you don’t like it, it’s really hard to keep up with it.”