by Mike Kerrane

One of the many nice things about being a college student is that you have (some) influence over your schedule. You can refuse to sign up for 8 a.m. classes and sleep in until noon. You can, like a lot of students, try to avoid classes on Fridays to give yourself a long weekend, every weekend. Sara Gartland was one of those students in the spring of 2010. She scheduled all of her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but it wasn’t because she wanted to make her schedule less hectic. She did it so she could drive to South Carolina every weekend.

Sara, a history and mathematics education major and senior in the Honors Program, competes at the highest national level as an equestrian. She began riding horses in shows and competitions at the age of five and has never really stopped, even when the move from her family’s farm in Cochranville, Pennsylvania to the campus of UD made practicing more difficult. Hence the trips to South Carolina: the community of horse trainers and coaches that she had worked with for years in Pennsylvania moved shop to Aiken, South Carolina. So Sara moved her training sessions to Aiken and drives down whenever she can.

That might seem a little bit extreme, when surely there are plenty of other horse communities in rural Pennsylvania, but chemistry means a lot in Sara’s sport. Her specific competitions are called “3-day eventing,” and combine the judging of precise moves in a controlled environment, a la figure skating, with a 2.5 to 3.5 mile sprint through what is essentially an obstacle course. Because the horse and rider attempt to maneuver the course at over 30 miles per hour, any lapse in concentration can be extremely dangerous. On top of the painstaking preparations horses and riders make, the best equestrians are those who have developed a strong bond with their horse. Sara has used only one horse for top-level competition for the last six years: Always A Lady. “We have something that is a lot like a bond that would form between a close knit team,” Sara says, and she works with Lady constantly to strengthen their communication and trust.

Sara has used only one horse for top-level competition for the last six years: Always A Lady.

Because the training is intense, Sara believes that there might be misconceptions about her sport, specifically that some people might fear that the horses are treated cruelly or trained in an abusive manner. “Look at the size of me,” Sara says, “And look at the size of the horse. If she didn’t want to be here, she wouldn’t.” Sara concedes that many horses do not enjoy eventing. Some are just not suited for the rigors of the competition. “But a horse like Lady? She doesn’t believe in vacation. She loves to work.”

So does Sara, apparently. Besides regularly riding against the U.S. and other Olympic teams, she is working towards completing her qualifications to ride at a 3-star international level, the second-highest in the world. Sara also is a Writing Fellow for the Honors Program and is a sister in Delta Gamma. She will begin her student teaching in the spring, which means she will not be able to drive 1,200 miles round-trip every week. But you can’t help but feel she will find a way to stay on top of her game, and one thing is certain: her schedule will be as busy as ever.

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Kelli Lynn Shermeyer

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