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Photo by: Isaac Babcock - UCF's equestrian club competed at the national championships before finally being recognized as a sports club at the university. Now they're hoping to build on their rapid success under coach Lesli Isaacson, left.
Winter Park / Maitland Observer Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010 10 years ago

Jumping to the top

UCF club recognized
by: Kerri Anne Renzulli

Samantha Hack had never seen the dark soil of Kentucky Horse Park.

As she rode through its shadowed gate at a walking pace, white wooden fencing spread wide, ringing the grounds of the biggest equestrian coliseum in the country. She’d ridden against the best. Now she had to prove her team belonged on top.

Six years ago, Hack couldn’t have dreamed of this chance. The Equestrian Club at the University of Central Florida didn’t even exist. Now she was on the national stage, on the verge of winning it all.

“It was so quiet in there you could hear a pin drop,” Hack said. “I could hear everything, but I just kept reminding myself, ‘you’re here already, you’ve already made it.’”

By the time she had finished traversing the course, she was among the top four in the country. At the Intercollegiate Horseshow Association national championships in May, the UCF club found its spotlight.

A rocky start

For the last six years, what’s become the best collegiate equestrian team in the state has had as much funding as the Chocolate Club.

The spoils from multiple state-level victories had been slow in coming for UCF’s prolific equestrians, who had languished in the lowest tier of club funding while competing against America’s top college teams.

Once they’d left hoof prints on the national stage, the school took notice.

They rank first in the state and third in their Intercollegiate Horseshow Association region out of 13 other universities from Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. This spurred an exit from their spot among the school’s more than 300 varied clubs. They are now one of the 37 sports clubs recognized by the Club Sport Council.

“We’ve grown up as a club, and we want people to know we’re doing this well,” said Coach Lesli Isaacson, who’s been with the team since its inception.

Their new club standing will provide greater funding and greater recognition, both of which the equestrian club needs in its attempts to edge out its competitors.

“We’re a team that’s really come from the bottom,” club officer Alisha Mays said. “The two schools that beat us in our region are fully funded equestrian programs. They recruit nationally; they have an equestrian major; they get everything. We don’t have that.”

On a national stage

The 60-member club consists of horse enthusiasts; the Pegasus Mascot Team, which cares for Pegasus and can be seen with him at football games; and three competitive equestrian teams: huntseat, dressage and western, of which huntseat is the most popular and recognized.

Last season, two members from the huntseat team of 16, Samantha Hack and Sonja Murillo, went on to nationals at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. They both placed within the top four for their respective event.

“Nationals was intimidating,” said Hack, who competed against 20 other riders in the novice equitation over fences category. “I come in on a horse I’ve never ridden before, feeling nervous because I’m just sitting, watching everyone else compete.

“Walking out, I was relived it was done, but also really excited about placing.”

In 2009, the club also went to nationals, this time sending huntseat captain Mays, who placed second.

The team competes in about eight shows throughout the school year. Each member who competes is required to attend lessons once a week and usually rides three to four other days a week at stables near the UCF campus.

Honoring their leader

Isaacson acts as the energy and support of her team, encouraging them but also being necessarily critical, often yelling “pull your reins up” or motioning for a change in position of either horse or rider.

“When I was training for nationals, [Isaacson] let me ride every day usually on multiple horses,” Hack said.

Fellow club member Laura Roberts added: “[Isaacson] puts her heart and soul into this and really dedicates herself to the team, but she gets no recognition for it other than what’s on our website.”

To honor Isaacson and the team’s achievement, the girls wanted to build her something special.

A shadowbox now adorns a wall in Isaacson’s office. Inside, long ribbons hang by the dozens. But Isaacson is sure more will soon be added as she and the team plan to continue “kicking butt.”

“We can now say, look at what we’ve done, look at the awards we’ve won,” Isaacson said.

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