It takes a lot of work to get to the Pacific Northwest Invitational Championship.
“Dedication,” suggested Cottage Grove High School equestrian co-advisor Shannon Sias. “I think dedication would be the right word.”
It takes a lot of dedication to get to the Pacific Northwest Invitational Championship.
And with lots of work, dedication and a combination of the two, four members of the Cottage Grove High School equestrian team – Kira Fountain, Sammy Wood, Madison Latham and Allison Ladd – competed at last weekend’s regional meet in Redmond that brings together the top high school equestrian teams from Oregon and Washington.
While the qualification for regionals took place at last month’s state meet, the preparation to compete at this high level began long before that. And it also began before the eight-month high school equestrian season officially got underway last November. For the Cottage Grove athletes, this has been a long time coming.
“This is my lifestyle. It’s kind of like breathing for some people,” said Fountain, a senior that is competing with torn cartilage in her hip and bulged discs in her back. “That’s kind of a necessary function. So I mean, this is my necessary function.”
For each of the Cottage Grove athletes it all started with a love of horses.
Fountain was 10 when her sister got a horse which peaked her interest, Wood was six when her dad got her two mustangs, Ladd’s family had them when she was little and Latham first started riding at the age of two.
Something about those early interactions created a lasting bond with horses that has turned this passion into a way of life. This commitment to their horses and equestrian as a whole has transcended the typical dedication and passion often seen in more mainstream sports.
“It’s fun, it’s what I’m supposed to be doing,” said the junior Latham. “When you’re on the horse everything else goes away and this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Nothing really else matters.”
This sentiment from Latham was not entirely unique to this group but par for the course.
“When I started riding horses I knew it was forever. I knew I would always want to keep doing it,” said Ladd.
“It’s pretty much my life, honestly,” said Wood. “This horse pretty much got me through everything. I used to be very closed off and depressed and she just opened me up.”
What this passion has turned into is hours upon hours of practice. The equestrian season kicks off in November and stretches all the way into mid-June. In that stretch of time the fall sports season at CGHS has concluded in addition to the winter and spring sports seasons both starting and finishing. But what stands out is not just the long-term commitment of any one given season but what a typical day of practice entails.
“They bust their butt. This is like no other sport,” said co-advisor Sias. “Mom and dad can’t drop you off at a gymnasium and drive away and come back in three hours. They are hauling horses.”
The school day ends at 3:10 p.m. at CGHS (and 2:07 p.m. on Wednesdays) at which point the scramble begins to get things ready for practice.
The team practices four days a week – a fact that was alarming to other teams in the league that practice once a week – at 5:30 p.m. To be ready to start on time, the athletes arrive at practice at about 4:45 p.m. The process of getting trailers hooked up and horses loaded generally begins for each girl at around 4:00 p.m. Sias noted that the general team policy is that you have to have your own horse and own transportation.
This gives the student-athletes about 50 minutes from the time the final bell rings at school to when they need to be at their house getting everything ready for practice.
“On practice days I speed home the best I can, like, aim for 3:30, 3:40. I get home, I get dressed – because I have to wear my boots and all that – I go straight to the barn so I can clean their stalls if I can before practice if I have time. If not then I saddle them up and head off to practice,” said Ladd.
The Lions rotate where they practice but, for the most part, stay relatively local. Two nights a week they are at a private arena off Mosby Creek and on Fridays they are at an arena down Lynx Hollow where they get to practice with cows. The team has also bounced around from the Oregon Horse Center in Eugene, an arena in Creswell to, in years past, having to trek to Albany and Salem for practice.
With two co-advisors, five coaches, an unattached volunteer and a dedicated team mom, the team is well taken care of and, at practice, there is no shortage of expert opinions in each discipline. Coaches focused on performance, gaming, drills, cows and other specialties to make sure the team is prepared. After going through the focus of the day may be, practice usually wraps up around 8:00 p.m.
“It doesn’t end there because once they’ve practiced for two or three hours the horse is hot and sweaty,” said self-described team mom Kelli Latham. “You can’t put a blanket on them, now you have to cool them down. Sometimes we’re outside so we can blanket them and put them back in the pasture at 9:00 at night.”
By the time horses are loaded back up into trailers, taken to their respective homes and put away for the night, it is even later.
“Sometimes I’m cleaning stalls and feeding them and watering them until like 10:30 p.m.,” said Ladd.
Four days a week stretching from November to June, the members of the equestrian team are spending a minimum of five hours of their evenings centered around practice. And through it all – snow, flooding, near triple-digit heat last week – the team continues to practice.
“When people are worried about weather during the ‘Snowpocalypse,’” said Sias with some sarcasm and an eye-roll at the term, “you have kids out in 30 degrees, two feet of snow, breaking snow so their horses are watered and fed. They don’t get to sit inside. They work their butt off.”
When the team isn’t practicing or at school, they are often out fundraising to ensure that they can continue to compete. This is a year-round commitment of selling cinnamon rolls or candy bars; parking cars at the Eugene Pro Rodeo and other events; and returning bottles. And somewhere in this endless cycle, they find a way to get their homework done.
“We have the exact same rules as every other sport. Grades, attendance, school comes first. The really cool thing, I have the best kids,” said Sias. “I don’t ever have to worry about a kid ever not being eligible. Every week when the school sends out reports, I never get a kid that I ever have to worry about. They are amazing.”
While Sias is proud of her athletes for what they do in the classroom, she has also watched the team thrive since she helped take over the program eight years ago. After her son’s freshman year she stepped into the main role of advisor and had no plans of coaching after he graduated and yet she keeps going.
“The problem is, you have (athletes) and you get to know them. So I have freshmen this year that I’ve got to know this season and I say, ‘This is going to be my last year.’ And they’re like, ‘But, can’t you just wait until I’m a senior? It’s only two more years.’ And then you feel so bad because you have this connection to these kids and so you stay. And then the next year there are more kids that you make a connection with and here you are eight years later with no children at home and you’re still here,” said Sias.
“Because you just enjoy watching them and you’ve made relationships. And yeah, you want to see them achieve all their goals. And it’s hard. It’s kind of like my baby and I’m scared to hand it to somebody else.”
In her time as coach the expectation for each athlete has been state, a goal that has been achieved time after time.
This year was no different as the Lions had high marks at the district meet – which is the combination of three meets throughout the season – and got six of the eight athletes on the team (though one athlete is an eighth grader and will be eligible to compete next year) to state.
At districts the team had first place finishes from Tristan Cruden in dressage, Ladd in steer daubing and the team made up of Ladd, Latham and Fountain in team penning. Cassie Fergason in steer daubing, Latham in pole bending and Ladd and Latham in working pairs scored second place finishes while Fountain in individual flags and the team in team versatility took third.
At the May 9 state meet the team’s top finish was with a second place finish in team penning.
“One naughty cow – they had a bad cow that there was nothing they could do,” said Sias. “They were one of three teams that got eight of nine cows and they did it in the second fastest time. That naughty cow cost them state.”
Elsewhere at the meet Ladd claimed sixth in steer daubing and the team of Ladd, Wood, Latham and Fergason were sixth in freestyle fours. Fountain was eighth in individual flags.
At last weekend’s regional Ladd took second in steer daubing and the team was seventh in both Team Penning and Freestyle Fours. While the team had higher hopes in Team Penning that’s not always what it has been about for Sias.
“Horse people, animal people, they’re just great people. So I think I am lucky. It’s the type of people that are doing this sport that are already such great people,” she said. “They’re really good. I know I’m their coach but we have really good riders. And they’re just such good girls, they really are. I adore every one of those girls.”