When someone is asked to describe what their teammates look like, the words “four-legged,” “furry” and “animal” would not typically come to mind.
However, for horseback riders, this is not the case.
Junior Brianna Butler and senior Juliana Himmel are just two of the students at Blue Valley who ride horses competitively.
They both spend three to five days a week at barns, practicing and taking care of the horses, as well as many weekends at horse shows.
Butler has been riding since she was two years old.
“My grandpa’s friend had horses at the Leawood stables, and he just decided to take me out one day,” she said. “Ever since then, I was hooked — and I was only two years old. I started riding competitively when I was six.”
Himmel started riding when she was nine years old.
“When I was a kid, I had a friend who rode horses,” she said. “One time, I went to one of her shows and saw her do it, and I told my mom I wanted to try it.”
Butler has had four different horses.
She takes care of them, and then boards them at a stable.
Each horse is a different level, so as she got bigger and increased in skill, she had to
move on to a new horse.
Rather than owning her own horse, Himmel belongs to the Peeper Ranch barn, where there are about 15 different horses.
She participates in a lesson program at the barn, and also works there as an intern.
“We get the horses ready for everyone else,” she said. “Two other girls and I are the head interns. We help the little kids and teach them how to handle the horses.”
Himmel said having multiple horses to ride at her barn has helped her grow as a rider.
“I like having the chance to ride multiple horses because they are all so different,” she said. “I love them all, and they each challenge you in a different way.”
Butler said her favorite of her four horses was one named Al Capony.
“I went through a lot with him, and we went to Nationals,” she said. “The bond that I had with him is kind of like a partnership between us — we can read each other’s body language. The companionship I feel with him is so strong. I loved Al Capony so much because I had him the longest and out of all of the horses I’ve had, he taught me the most about riding.”
Butler said she appreciates the emotional aspect that comes with riding horses.
“I love being able to trust the horse and having the horse trust you back,” she said. “When you’re jumping and you’re in the air, it almost feels like you’re flying.”
Butler competes in pony jumping.
“I travel all over the U.S., mostly in the Midwest region,” she said. “Basically, I follow my trainer. I discipline jumpers, and at the competitions, they judge the horse’s accuracy and how fast they can go through the course. We are judged by our time, but we can’t knock over the rails.”
Each show gives different amounts of points to winners. In order to qualify for Nationals, a rider has to have earned a certain number of points throughout the year.
Himmel, on the other hand, rides Saddle Seat
“There are two classes in saddle seat competitions — Pleasure and Equitation” she said. “In Pleasure, the judges give points based on how the rider and the horse work together. In Equitation, they give points based on how the rider actually looks on the horse.”
Himmel said patience is key when dealing with horses.
“Obviously, you can’t really talk to the horses,” she said. “So, it gets frustrating when they are doing something wrong. You have to be very patient with them.”
Butler said riders develop unique bonds with their horses.
“As you progress, you get to know the horse’s personality, and you get to know them really well,” she said. “They are just like any other pet — you get to know them and start to love them.”
Butler said the main thing riding horses has taught her is responsibility.
“Owning horses really is not the easiest thing in the world,” she said. “It’s taught me to love animals and have a soft spot for animals.”
In 2011, Butler competed in the National Pony Jumpers, where her team won the gold medal. Individually, Butler placed 10th out of the top 40 jumpers in the nation.
Butler said getting tenth at Nationals was a surreal experience.
“When I was standing up on the podium, I had so many emotions going through me,” she said. “I was crying with happiness and couldn’t stop smiling.”
Himmel said people don’t think riding is a sport because they typically don’t understand it.
“I’ve heard people say negative things about horseback riding, and that it isn’t really a sport,” she said. “I kind of just laugh. I can understand why they don’t understand, but I personally know how hard the sport actually is.”