This November, the Fairfield Equestrian Team found itself in an unusual position. The typically quiet C.W. Post team was holding a commanding 25-point lead going into Fairfield's home show, the last of the season. Fairfield, last year's regional winner, seemed destined to close the season in second place.
Yet, amazingly, the team was able to close the gap. Winning more than a third of the day's classes, the team finished the show with the High Point Team award, the High Point Rider award, and a two-point regional lead.
"We were just so determined," said Kate Cronin, the team's president and Open Point rider.
It's hard to believe that the Fairfield Equestrian Team, the dominant team in Zone 3, Region 2 and a consistent national contender, is actually only 10 years old. In those 10 years, it has produced nine Cacchione Cup riders and five regional championship teams.
The team found its start in the fall of 1992. Lisa Bailey, the former Sarah Lawrence equestrian coach, was taking graduate courses at Fairfield when she saw fliers hung by students interested in riding. She contacted the group and offered to coach the fledgling team. It took a semester before the team started competing, but after that first slow season the Fairfield Stags have been consistent competitors. They finished their second year in third place, and have been first or second ever since.
"For whatever reason, we had luck on our side," said Kristen Abbatiello, a former member of the team who now runs New Canaan Mounted Troop, the facility where the team practices. "We started out with a bang and just kept getting better every year."
Among the keys to the team's strength are its close ties to Troop. The team has ridden there since the beginning. Because of her own intercollegiate experience, Abbatiello knows the needs of the program well. About a 15-minute drive from Fairfield, the barn has two reliable school horses, each with its own quirk to teach the riders. Some of the team's upper level riders also practice at Courtyard Farm in Bedford, New York.
In addition to lessons at either Troop or Courtyard, each rider is required to attend a weekly practice at Troop where Bailey tries to replicate horse show conditions. During the practice, riders switch onto several horses on the flat and over fences to improve their versatility and acquaint them with a wide variety of rides.
That experience pays off. Though Bailey admits that she devotes special attention to preparing her point teams for tournaments and zone finals, the team's rigorous and consistent practice schedule ensures her a deep team.
"They're good point blockers, not just point riders," Bailey said. It's not uncommon for Fairfield to pick up a number of high ribbons in the same class. In the Open division, Fairfield's strength across the board is evident; four of the top five riders in the region are on Bailey's team.
Fairfield University runs the team as a club sport, which means the team receives just over $15,000 a year to run its program. Team members pay about $72 in dues, which help cover their lessons, practices and horse show expenses. Fairfield has considered promoting the team to varsity status, but according to Bailey, a change does not seem imminent.
Bailey has received assistance over the years from alumni, who feel drawn to help the team after their own competitive years are over. Abbatiello coached for several years following her graduation. Later, Beth Yap, a three-time Cacchione Cup rider as an undergraduate, coached beside Bailey as well. This year marks the first in which Bailey has been alone at the horse shows, but she benefits from a supporting cast of instructors at Troop and Bedford and some help from her Open riders.
This new arrangement nicely echoes the sense of community at the heart of the team. Its 23 riders are extremely close and are always at ringside, helping to adjust stirrups, shine boots or offer words of encouragement. At last year's Zone Finals, nearly 20 Fairfield riders traveled to Pennsylvania, even though only seven were actually competing.
"What is so amazing about intercollegiate and being on this team especially is that it's all about the team," Cronin said. "To have other riders that you get to cheer on and watch progress and start off-to watch them jump their first jump or canter for the first time-it's so much more exciting to see them move along than to win a class yourself."
USRiding.com/IHSA.com Intern, Margot Sanger-Katz, a former Yale Equestrian Team Open rider, is now coaching the team and riding in the IHSA as an alumna while she attends the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York.