TCU Western: Voices from Inside the Team

Four team members offer an insider's look at being part of the Texas Christian University's varsity equestrian Western lineup.
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Four team members offer an insider's look at being part of the Texas Christian University's varsity equestrian Western lineup.

Editor's note: This is an online extra from the December '08 issue of Horse & Rider magazine. For more on the TCU team, read "The Little Team that Could" in that issue.

Rider: Ashley Aikman, 19

Hometown: McAllen, Texas

Academics: Sophomore majoring in kinesiology

Specialty: Horsemanship

Tidbit: "Ashley went undefeated in horsemanship all last spring," says Coach Gary Reynolds. "She had some rough spots in a couple of her first games last fall, then all of a sudden she just figured it all out and was phenomenal from then on. I used four upperclassmen for the horsemanship team at the National Championship last year, because they had the experience, but now that Ashley's got some experience under her belt, I predict she'll be one of the big stars of the future."

Why she's a varsity equestrian: "After I achieved the goal I'd set for myself during high school, which was winning a world championship [in AQHA Trail], I felt I needed to change to some new goals and riding on a varsity team seemed like a great way to do that. I couldn't be happier with my decision. I love being able to come out here and have a different horse to ride every day, with something new always happening. These aren't horses that are perfectly molded and set up by the trainer for you to just be able to go in and show. Instead, they really test the rider's talents and abilities. I always have something new and challenging to work on, so there's never a boring day. And it's fun!"

Hardest adjustment as a freshman: "The hardest thing for me was being told the first time that I wasn't going to get to compete, because that had never happened to me before. I mean, I always had a horse to show, and my mom always entered me in classes. So it was difficult, even when I was told that other girls needed to have a chance to compete, and that I would get my chance, too. We have so many great girls on the team, but still it was hard to get used to sitting on the sidelines sometimes. I got used to it because I realized that there is always someone who's going to have to sit out, and when it's my turn to do that, I just cheer everyone on and make the best of it. I didn't compete at the Nationals because there were four really good upperclassmen who rode on the team, but I went as an alternate, and I got to help warm up the horses. I realized when I got there that it was an excellent way for me to experience Nationals without feeling all the pressure."

Most challenging element: "I wasn't sure at first how it would work out for me to go from riding as an individual to riding as part of a team, because like most of my teammates, I'd competed for myself all my life before college. But I've had so much fun being part of a team. I know this sounds cliché, but we really are like a family. I know there are some college teams where the English and Western riders don't get along, but we definitely do. We're there for each other, cheering each other on. Even if I'm sitting in the stands and not showing, I'm still rooting for my team. Right now I'm even living with three girls from the English team, which shows that not only can we get along as riders, but academically and socially, too. Another hard thing is drawing for horses. When you show on your own, you have months and months to practice on your horse. But in varsity equestrian, you only have four minutes to get to know the horse you're going to compete on! There's no preparation with that horse whatsoever."

Advice for potential recruits: "You definitely should ride a lot of horses. With a lot of girls, it's hard to tell whether they're truly a good rider because they've got a really expensive horse and have never ridden anything else. But just because you've won a world championship or just because you've won a bunch of titles doesn't always mean you're going to be the best varsity rider because the horses in this program are so different. It's a good idea to get on younger horses or some horses that maybe aren't so great. Also, you should get around and show outside your area. You need to go beyond your own town to show, because at the very least, other varsity riders might see you and recommend you as a recruit to their coach. It's a better way for coaches to see you ride, too."

Rider: Jennifer Neel, 19

Hometown: Milsap, Texas

Academics: Sophomore majoring in advertising/public relations
Specialty: Reining

Tidbit: Mom is Lorna Neel, Horse & Rider cover subject in the November 2005 issue

High School: Played on the varsity basketball and volleyball teams. "I think that helped prepare me for a team sport, but equestrian is different because when you compete for your team, you're still the only one out there in the arena. In volleyball and basketball, you're out on the court with all your teammates together. But varsity equestrian also turns an individual sport into a team sport. You have so many people rooting you on, and there's this great feeling of success when you do well for your team."

Why she's a varsity equestrian: "I really liked TCU as a school, so having an equestrian team here was an extra bonus. Coach Reynolds came to my house to watch me ride, and then he recruited me for the team. I love it because it's fun, it's something new for TCU, and it's great to be a part of making history here. I love being part of the first national championship team at TCU in 25 years and part of the first national championship for the equestrian team."

Hardest adjustment as a freshman: "Going to our first game was the hardest, because it was away--a three-game weekend flying between Auburn [Alabama], Georgia and South Carolina. It was crazy because there was a hurricane coming, so it was really windy. I kept losing my hat during warm-up. And we didn't know what to expect because most of us were freshmen. But the experience also helped bring our team together. I think that's what helped us succeed, because we learned about each other and how to help each other out."

Most challenging element: "It's challenging trying to handle team responsibilities along with school, but I think most people can get it done if they really love it. One of the hardest things is catch-riding a horse. Most riders are used to having just one horse, and we know that horse's ins and outs. But when you catch-ride, you don't really know what to expect. You have those four minutes to learn everything you can, and then you have to go into the arena and ride your best. That can be pretty hard at times."

Memories from the 2008 Nationals: "The scariest moment was the final round when we were tied. The 10 or 15 minutes when the officials were tallying up the scores was incredibly nerve-wracking. The best moment was when they gave us the trophy! We all walked into the arena holding hands, and everyone was crying. It had been our goal to win Nationals, but to actually do it in only the program's second year was absolutely amazing."

Rider: Carrie von Uhlit, 21
Hometown: Winters, Calif.

Academics: Senior with a triple major in finance, marketing and accounting

Specialties: Horsemanship and reining

Tidbit: Captain of this year's Western team

Why she's a varsity equestrian: "Riding on a varsity team puts a totally different spin on competing. I like the team-sport aspect of it. But the team aspect is also the most challenging part, because you not only have to think about preparing yourself and your own horse, but you also have to help your teammates prepare, and you have to get on two totally strange horses and do your very best every time out."

Memories from the 2008 Nationals: "Probably the most scary moment was when we were tied 2-2 with Georgia after the horsemanship. Horsemanship is normally our strongest event, and when we win a game by a wide margin, it's usually because our horsemanship team goes out and knocks it out--then the reining team can follow up. We'd never had to depend on our reining team to kind of bring it home, so at Nationals we just looked at each other and said, 'Well, there's a first time for everything. We've got to just pull it all out and make it work.' And we did! We were all so ecstatic, yet it seemed surreal, like a dream. But when we got the trophy and they were taking the photos, we realized it was all very real."

Advice for potential recruits: "Get as much experience under your belt as you can. Get on some unfamiliar horses and try to knock out a pattern without much warm-up--that will give you a good feel of what it's like at a varsity-level competition."

Rider: Kindel Huffman, 24

Hometown: Norco, Calif.

Academics: A senior who will graduate in December 2008 with a degree in marketing, Huffman has already completed her allotted time frame of NCAA eligibility.

Specialties: Horsemanship and reining; she's also competed successfully in both hunt seat events

Tidbit: "Kindel is a rarity," says Coach Reynolds. "She excelled in all four disciplines: both Western events and both hunt seat events. She's the only varsity equestrian in history to earn MVP in all four events during a single season. She set all kinds of records that may never be broken. She's also the only one to win all four matches in one game." Huffman, whose little sister Kelsey is a sophomore on the TCU team, also was one of only four Western riders chosen from among all 18 Division I Varsity Equestrian schools to compete in the separate, individual phase of horsemanship at the 2008 National Championship.

Why she was a varsity equestrian: "I knew that TCU was starting a team, and I was interested even though some people told me I wouldn't like it because it wasn't the same as showing Quarter Horses. So I kind of went in thinking I wouldn't do it, but then the organizers persuaded me to try it. I'm so glad they did, because it's the greatest thing I've ever done!"

Most challenging element: "Definitely the workouts, and trying to handle team practices with school because before I always rode on my own, so I could make my own hours. And I always had my horses in my backyard, so being on the team was a new thing for me because everything was scheduled. I had to adjust to working with other people. But I love the friends I've made, and I love the sport of varsity equestrian. It truly is a sport, and I consider myself an athlete. When I showed horses on the circuit, I never thought of myself as an athlete--it was just a hobby. I'd like to be a varsity coach some day."

Memories from the 2008 Nationals: "The scariest moment was when we were tied after horsemanship. All through the competition, up until that last-day tie, we'd felt headstrong and powerful. But at that point it was like, 'We're so close to winning it, yet we're so close to possibly losing it, too.' I got through it by leaning on my teammates, because they were scared, too. We stuck together, and we agreed that we could and would finish strong. Our being such a tightly-bonded team helped us so much. The most exhilarating moment was when we found out that we'd won. The second-most exhilarating moment was when my championship ring came in the mail! All summer I'd been waiting for it, and it finally arrived. It's prettier than I ever imagined, and it's an awesome feeling to wear it."