A very small percentage of collegiate equestrians make it to the national championship each year. On May 5, not one but two Spartans – Savannah White and Gillian Pearson – represented UNC Greensboro in the quest for the national title at their respective levels.
“You’ve made it already!” UNCG Equestrian Club coach Allison Townley ’02 reminds White as she guides a large grey gelding named Steel around the arena through several prescribed movements during their practice on May 2. “Just to get there is a huge accomplishment.”
Throughout the season, UNCG Equestrian Club riders blindly draw to determine which horse they will pilot around the arena under the critical eye of a judge, competing against riders from 11 other teams that make up Region 5 of Zone 4, UNCG’s “conference” in the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA).
Riders earning the most points in their region go on to compete head-to-head against other top riders in their IHSA zone championship. Only two riders at each level of competition advance from each of the nation’s eight zones to the IHSA National Championship Horse Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
“If you can do this, you can ride whatever they give you,” Townley shouted so Pearson and White could hear over the wind. “I know it’s frustrating, but if you can develop those tools, you can handle anything that’s thrown at you.”
Pearson, a junior business and administration and finance major, is riding Jenks. He is a more complicated horse than what she will likely draw in Harrisburg. But her coach wants to prepare her for anything she may encounter.
“It really does test your horsemanship,” says Pearson of competing in IHSA. The riders have never ridden the horses on which they must compete. They have to know how to adapt to horses with various abilities and idiosyncrasies. “I like IHSA because I like having to think on the fly.”
White, a senior majoring in biology, served as the team captain for the past two years and considers the work the club has done to create a positive and supportive environment for students to work toward a common goal to be one of their greatest accomplishments. This year, she competed in IHSA’s most advanced level – Open Hunter Seat Equitation. And for her leadership out of the saddle, the coaches in her IHSA region voted to recognize her with the prestigious Senior Leadership Award.
White was at IHSA Nationals instead of commencement on May 6 as her college career came to a close. But that is OK with her – she’d rather be wearing a riding helmet than a mortarboard. In fact, using the skills she’s honed while at UNCG, she plans to launch a career in the horse industry which she will begin with an internship at Whitestone Farm in Fredricksburg, Virginia after graduation.
“This team has really helped me find myself,” said Pearson who currently serves as the Club’s Treasurer and is preparing to step into a co-captain position next year. “I’ve gained leadership, organization, and time management skills. It adds a very exciting and difficult element to being a college student.”
Allison Townley ’02 is proud to be carrying on a tradition of excellence. She showed in the Open Hunter Seat Equitation class when she was a student competing for UNCG. Now she is developing the next generation of riders as the coach of the UNCG Equestrian Club, which has trained at her Townley Equestrian Center in Randleman, NC, since 2013.
Ultimately, Pearson finished her season as 7th in the nation in the Introductory Equitation class in Harrisburg. White secured an honorable mention for her performance in Open Equitation.
In addition to having two riders advance to compete in the national championship, the UNCG Equestrian Club was the second-place team in their region this year, finishing only behind Emory & Henry College, the reigning IHSA National Championship team.
Story and photography by Rachel Kelly, Advancement Communications