Students make friends on UGA's equestrian team

ATHENS - Once a week, Hannah Dyer can be found mucking a horse stall at the Animal and Dairy Science Complex on the campus of the University of Georgia.

It's not a an easy job, sweeping up manure and then pulling a full wheelbarrow of it a couple hundred feet before dumping it into a giant Dumpster. But for the 5-foot-4 UGA freshman from Lawrenceville, this chore is a part of her responsibility as a member of the university's equestrian team.

"With riding, it is just part of something you do when you grow up riding horses," said Dyer, who began riding five years ago. "By the time you get to college, it's just a routine, and we actually only clean stalls once a week. So that's nothing compared to taking care of your own horse, where you would be cleaning it once or twice a day."

Dyer has 70 teammates, including Emily Furbish of Norcross, Tori Moore of Lawrenceville, Kelley Mundrick of Duluth and Catherine Pennington of Dacula, and the team is sponsored by the University's athletic association. The UGA equestrian team, which began competing as a varsity sport in 2002, is an outlet for these young women to continue riding and be a part of a team environment in a traditionally individual sport.

"It is kind of cool having your teammates support you," Dyer said. "It is more fun than doing it by yourself."

Part of the allure of joining a college equestrian team is that riders can practice for a far lower cost than they could on their own - and they can also receive athletic scholarships. Some riders sell their horses when they become part of the team, while others keep their own animals to show during outside competitions.

For UGA freshman Furbish, joining the college equestrian team meant not only getting a scholarship, but also finding a new group of friends.

"I like it because there are a lot of people on the equestrian team so you have a lot of friends," Furbish said. "We have a big support group that is built-in with the team."

Throughout the school year, the riders each share the same experiences, including early-morning Pilates classes, cleaning out stalls and attending meets and team-bonding weekends.

"I have met so many girls that appreciate the same qualities of caring for an animal, and they understand practicing and not getting a lot of sleep," Mundrick said. "It's like our sorority."

The NCAA college equestrian format is unique in that riders compete head-to-head with each other on the same horse, as opposed to other horse-show formats in which riders supply their own horses.

Georgia coach Meghan Boenig was instrumental in pioneering the NCAA format, which compares athlete to athlete. Coaches, riders and fans of college equestrian competition all said they enjoy the head-to-head competition. As the riders compete against one another, though, they also try not to let their teammates down.

"You are riding for 70 other people, not just yourself," Mundrick said. "There's a little bit more pressure if you mess up."