Montana State University western equestrian club rider qualifies for national horse show competition

Montana State University
Farm Forum

BOZEMAN – A Montana State University freshman skilled in the art and grace of reining horses has landed a spot to compete at the national level in western horseback riding – the first time in the university’s history.

Elizabeth Jones, from St. Paul, Minnesota, will represent the MSU Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Equestrian Team in May in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, at the national IHSA competition, where universities from all over the country send western and English riders to compete.

The IHSA is a national organization that allows collegiate riders of all skill levels to compete individually and as teams in equestrian competitions. According to the organization, the IHSA was founded on the principle that any college student should be able to participate in horse shows, regardless of financial status or riding ability. The IHSA hosts regional and national competitions throughout the year and provides horses to riders who don’t own their own horse.

At MSU, the IHSA club team includes about 40 riders divided into two teams: a western team, which uses a traditional western saddle; and an English team, which uses an English saddle. Each team has a student captain.

Jones will be competing at the IHSA national competition as a western rider in reining, a genre of riding originating from cutting and working cattle herds. Reining competitions show off the skills necessary for a working cow horse. The rider employs little or no contact with the horse and instead, uses her seat, reins, weight and leg muscles to give aids to the horse and guide it through a precise pattern of circles, spins and stops.

“You want it to look like you’re in control and you want the horse to be responsive to everything you ask of it, which takes a lot of discipline, strength and practice,” said Jones, who grew up around a horse farm in Minnesota where her grandparents bred horses specifically for reining. “It tests your ability to guide a horse through a precise, clean pattern while moving at a fast pace.”

Jones took first place at the IHSA semifinals competition in western reining in March hosted by Alfred University in New York. Before that, she also won first place at the regional competition in reining in Billings hosted by Rocky Mountain College.

Using only one hand to guide the horse will add a new challenge at the national competition because riding with two hands is allowed in regional and semifinal competitions, Jones said.

Wearing her lucky shirt that the self-described “incredibly superstitious” Jones says she wears for every horse show, she’ll rely on her focus and team’s support to get her through the national competition she described as a “huge honor as a freshman to be able to compete.”

Jones, who had to sell her own horse before attending college, said the fact that MSU even had an IHSA team swayed her to become a Bobcat.

“The availability to ride horses at MSU and the opportunity to still compete was huge for me,” Jones said. “It’s been a really great experience being a part of a team and community, and it’s something I hope I can continue to develop and grow in.”

Amy Desjardins, MSU’s IHSA western team captain and senior from Prineville, Oregon, said part of the challenge of IHSA includes developing the horsemanship skills to be able to ride any horse.

“Because most of us don’t own our own horses, we’re riding horses that we don’t know and aren’t familiar with at competitions, so it forces you to get outside of your comfort zone and rely on riding components that help you handle a lot of different horses.”

Throughout the year, Desjardins said MSU’s ISHA teams operate on a shoestring budget, often pooling money for car rentals to travel to competitions. In February, the English team borrowed a bus from MSU’s baseball and lacrosse clubs — only to have it break down outside of Miles City on their way back from a regional competition in Minnesota during a winter cold snap.

Despite financial hardship, Desjardins said the last few years have been particularly great for MSU’s ISHA teams.

“This last year was record-breaking for us,” Desjardins said. “We had three riders qualify for regionals and two qualify for semifinals, so we’re just really excited our riders get to represent MSU at the national level and (that we are) able to grow the IHSA chapter here.”

Desjardins said the biggest challenges of the MSU IHSA teams are financial support and community support in finding area horses that are bred for equestrian horsemanship for IHSA team members to practice with.

MSU IHSA western team members that qualified for regionals were McKenna Anders, a sophomore from Lake Oswego, Oregon, and Jones. Western team members that qualified for semifinals were: Kayla Ballweg, a sophomore from Verona, Wisconsin; Kelli Nicholson, a sophomore from Bend, Oregon, and Leah Wimmer, a freshman from Saint Cloud, Minnesota. English team members that qualified for regionals were: Nicole Bodnar, a senior from Encinitas, California, who is English team captain and Emily Cesnar, a sophomore from Crystal Lake, Illinois. Cesnar won first place in English regionals held in Crookston, Minnesota, and also qualified for English zones (semifinals) held April 9 in Springfield, Missouri, where she placed fifth. The top two English zones riders move on to nationals.

The Montana State University Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Equestrian Team stands in front of Montana Hall on the MSU campus. At MSU, the IHSA club team includes about 40 riders, one of whom has qualified to compete in the western horseback style of reining at the national IHSA competition in May in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Amy Desjardins