REINING IN THE COMPETITION
Wilkes Honors College Student Named High-Point Rider in
FAU Equestrian Competition
February 4th, 2014 (Jupiter, FL)—At Florida Atlantic University’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, students work hard to balance their academic responsibilities with their extracurricular interests and activities. Wilkes Honors College junior Michelle Dougherty is no exception; in fact, Dougherty has dedicated an average of thirty hours each week to pursuing a lifelong passion: equestrian sports. As a member of Florida Atlantic University’s Equestrian Show Team, Dougherty recently had the opportunity to compete at Savannah College of Art and Design’s equestrian competition, where she was awarded one of the event’s most prestigious prizes.
Dougherty began riding horses almost 14 years ago, and has been competing with FAU’s show team for two years. “The Equestrian Club is a student organization that anyone can join, even if they don’t have much riding experience,” explains Dougherty. “Within that club is the show team, which requires a little more time and personal investment to be a part of.” The “little more time” Dougherty refers to may be no less than twenty-five to thirty hours each week, spent either at horseback riding lessons, attending weekend-long competitions, and working at the barn or at volunteer opportunities organized by the club, not to mention the 45-minute commute from the Jupiter campus to the riding facility in Boca Raton. “It’s definitely a big time commitment,” Dougherty says. However, despite whatever difficulties she may have balancing her schedule, Dougherty is happy to give the time to do what she loves. “Equestrian sports keep you in great shape, but they also teach you a lot of valuable skills, like how to think on your feet and make quick decisions,” she explains. “You aren’t just thinking about yourself; you’re also thinking about the 1,200 lb. animal under you, and you have to learn to act quickly.”
Those skills certainly came in handy during the team’s recent visit to Savannah, Georgia. The competition involved over 150 riders from all skill levels, about 100 of which were competing against Dougherty for the coveted prize of High Point Rider. Competitor’s scores were determined based on how well they performed a series of maneuvers, including flat maneuvers like trotting and cantering as well as jumping. “All riders are randomly assigned a horse on the day of the show,” explains Dougherty. Riders know very little about their mounts before the beginning of the show; they are only given a short description of the horse’s accustomed riding style and are allowed to walk the horse in a circle prior to the competition. “A lot depends on what horse you get, but it also depends on how well you ride it,” Dougherty states. At the SCAD show, both of those components were in her favor. Dougherty tied with two other competitors for the highest point score in the show. “The three of us were pulled aside by the judges one at a time and asked a few questions about the technical aspects of riding,” Dougherty describes. These included calculating the number of paces a horse would make over a given distance and describing how they would handle their horse if there was a sudden change while they were riding. After reviewing each competitor’s answers, the judges determined that Dougherty had earned the title of High Point Rider for the show. “I was very surprised when I won based on the questions,” she says. “But just qualifying for the prize felt very good, because many times the same people are named High Point Rider at each event.”
Dougherty views receiving this award as a great accomplishment, but she insists that equestrian sports are about much more than the competition and prizes. “There’s a great sense of teamwork and school spirit every time we go to a show,” she maintains. “I’ve also made friends with a lot of the competitors from other schools, so it’s great to see them at events and talk to them about any of the horses they may have ridden before.” In fact, it is the sense of solidarity among riders and coaches that strikes Dougherty as one of the most important parts of the competition. "I remember during one competition that I was assigned a horse that just didn’t want to canter,” Dougherty recalls. This is a common occurrence for the competition mounts, who may be nervous due to the crowds of people, unfamiliar sounds and movements, and the presence of so many other horses. “Usually horses will respond to clicking to get them to speed up,” she says, mimicking the sharp sound with her tongue and teeth. “As soon as everyone in the arena realized that my horse wasn’t cooperating, they immediately started clicking to help me out,” says Dougherty happily. “It’s like that whenever a rider has problems with his or her horse.”
While riding horses has given Dougherty some of the best experiences of her life, she is well aware that the sport isn’t for everyone. “It takes up a lot of time, and you have to be committed to riding as best you can,” she says. While her years competing with FAU’s show team will end after her graduation in 2015, Dougherty hopes to continue in her pursuit of equestrian sports after her undergraduate years are over. “I hope to keep riding. It’s been a huge part of my life, and it’s something that I will always enjoy,” she says with a smile.
About Florida Atlantic University: Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University, with an annual economic impact of $6.3 billion, serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at sites throughout its six-county service region in southeast Florida. FAU’s world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University is placing special focus on the rapid development of three signature themes – marine and coastal issues, biotechnology and contemporary societal challenges – which provide opportunities for faculty and students to build upon FAU’s existing strengths in research and scholarship. For more information, visit www.fau.edu