The Unseen Success Of The Penn State Equestrian Team
About 15 minutes outside of campus, nestled within the small town of Pennsylvania Furnace, is where you’ll find Kocher Farms, Stable, and Tack Shop. If you walk through the farm, you may see one of the many horses housed in the stable. If you stay a bit longer, though, you may see a small group of Penn State students quietly continue to make a name for themselves.
While most of the Penn State community has its eyes on a promising wrestling team, the Penn State Equestrian Team is focused on perpetuating its own legacy of excellence — a legacy that’s 27 years in the making. “The team started in 1971 originally out of Eastwood Farms, and has been a competitive force in the [Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association] ever since its foundation,” Equestrian Team President Alexa Echevarria said. “We have been first in our region 25 times of 27 throughout these years and have finished as reserve champions at Nationals in 2006.”
The Equestrian Team practices and competes under the guidance of Kerry Kocher and Kristen Gretok, both of whom have years of experience in the show world. The coaches teach a discipline of riding known as “hunt-seat equitation,” where riders are required to navigate through a course of obstacles. The team also competes in flat class competition, in which riders are judged on their form. Echevarria says that Kocher and Gretok sacrifice much of their personal time to travel with the team to competitions. “We are very close to them and their family. They truly believe we can make it to nationals and even win,” she said.
The team, consisting of 85 active members, competes anywhere from 12 to 15 times a year. Its 2015-2016 season began with a competition at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia and ends with IHSA Nationals, held at the beginning of May. “In between that time we have regularly scheduled competitions and no offseason,” Echevarria said.
Despite a full schedule, the team continues to push boundaries in both the classroom and the competition circuit. In December, the team placed first in academics and fourth overall in the Tournament of Champions, a division consisting of the best teams on the East Coast. The group sent three members, including Echevarria, to dance in THON this year. “The Equestrian Team is very active in THON,” Echevarria added. “We participate in canvassing trip, make THONvelopes, and have many alternative fundraisers.”
Creating the highest standard of merit wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of members, and Echevarria ensures that new members are brought on every semester. Freshman Gabrielle Rodriguez joined the team for the 2015-2016 season, and says that her experience so far is more rewarding than she anticipated. “I joined the team to further my love for riding and become part of something at Penn State,” she said. “It has far exceeded my expectations.”
Additionally, the Equestrian Team tries to bring on students without any riding experience. “Every semester we take about 3-5 people who have never ridden before to teach them basic skills…” Echevarria said. “Three years ago, we had a walk trot rider go from never having ridden a horse to winning at IHSA Nationals out of her time at Penn State.”
As the group prepares for its regional competition this Saturday and Sunday, Echevarria is spending some time reflecting on the team’s accomplishments thus far, despite a lack of funding. “There are many colleges that can completely fund their equestrian programs and their team members ride almost every day with state of the art equipment, and we are still quite competitive with them,” she said. “Even without complete funding we still manage to be incredibly competitive among these farm colleges.”
Unsurprisingly, Echevarria hopes that the group’s ultimate triumphs will make prospective members more aware of the possibility of success: “Even if you have never ridden before, take a risk and, who knows, maybe you’ll become a national champion at a sport you’ve never dreamed of doing.”