Ryan Chartrand

Imagine jumping on a horse that you’ve never ridden before, having to accommodate and get used to the style of the horse in only 10 minutes, and then competing in an event on a team that has previously won four Western Region Championships.

This is normal routine for Cal Poly’s dressage club team, a part of the Intercollegiate Dressage Association and one of four IDA schools representing the West Coast in the sport.

“Cal Poly dressage is an evolving program and while we have always done well, we are consistently getting better,” said mechanical engineering junior Heather Brownlow, who is the team’s president. “This year marks the fourth straight year that Cal Poly has come in first in the Western Region. Because our region is so small, only the first-place team gets to go to nationals. Last year, we placed seventh in the nation, our best finish since we have been a team.”

Dressage, pronounced druh-sahzh, is a popular East Coast sport that is in its fifth year at Cal Poly. It consists of a horse being guided through a sequence of maneuvers by a rider’s hands, legs and weight.

“California has an extremely strong dressage community, but most dressage is found on the East Coast,” Brownlow said. “Europe is where the sport originated and they are still specialists in the breeding, training and riding of dressage horses.”

So obviously horses are involved, but what exactly does the sport of dressage entail?

“Dressage is a classical form of horseback riding and is composed of many levels,” Brownlow said. “The lowest being introductory level, which is only walk/trot, and the highest being Grand Prix, which is the level shown in Olympic dressage. In a show, a rider memorizes a test for a particular level. Most levels have three or four different tests, increasing in difficulty as one progresses from test one to test four.”

Each rider is given points between one and 10 with scoring based on elements like the riders’ posture, effectiveness and the quality of the horse’s gaits. (Gaits are the movements that a horse makes such as a walk, trot or canter.) The arena that is used for competition is a 20-foot-by-60-foot track with markers that must indicate where the tested movements must be performed.

While there are many different styles and levels of dressage, collegiate dressage offers a little twist that changes up the competition.

“You randomly draw a horse to ride, have 10 minutes to warm up and then you go ride your test,” Brownlow said. “A rich person can’t just go buy a really expensive horse and beat the pants off everyone. IDA builds horsemanship. It takes a great rider to be able to build that connection required for dressage in only 10 minutes.”

Each team consists of four riders, one in each level – introductory, lower training, upper training and first levels. This works to the advantage of the Cal Poly team because of the range of skill levels in its members.

“We have girls that had never ridden before and people that have competed and third-level dressage on their own horse,” Brownlow said. “It has been an extremely fun year with the amount of diversity we have on the team.”

Business sophomore Kelly Hanseth, who is the team’s secretary, is excited with the team’s growth.

“We’ve definitely grown and we’ve basically doubled this year in size,” Hanseth said. “I think that we have gotten stronger as a team. We know how to ride and we’re able to ride different horses better that we’re not used to riding.”

Cal Poly has topped the West Coast with its closest rival being UC Davis.

“They are the only school that has even come close to unseating us as West Coast champs,” Brownlow said.

Along with UC Davis, UCLA and UC Santa Cruz attend the IDA competitions on this side of the country.

A typical competition takes place on a Sunday and with preparation, competition and clean-up. Cal Poly riders expect to be at the track from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., not even including the day before work.

“When we host a show, we spend the day before trailering, riding, bathing and braiding all the horses,” Brownlow said. “Every piece of tack that will be used is cleaned and labeled so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. The show day involves checking everyone in, signing safety paperwork and the horse draw. The parade of horses happens after the draw.

“The parade is simply riding each horse individually in the arena while notes on the horses are read. This is intended to give the riders a glimpse of the kind of horse they will be riding. Then all the tests are ridden and the awards ceremony happens afterward.”

There is no dressage facility for the team on the Cal Poly campus so it travels to Coastal Equine, which has the exact competition-sized arena and the proper equipment required for the tests performed.

As for the animals, there are no team-designated horses, so Elise Torres, the horse master, must find around 20 privately-owned horses for all of the competitors to ride.

“Many members have their own horses but quite a few do not,” Brownlow said. She personally does have her own horse named Carnie that helped her get into the love of jumping and eventually dressage.

The team is coached by Josslyn Chandler, an animal science student who volunteers her time to the team and has ridden up to the Grand Prix level.

The latest event for the team was nationals last weekend at Centenary College in New Jersey. Cal Poly sent five competitors to the event.

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