Chat with the Champions: 2018 IHSA National Champions Q&A

Young men and women from all over the country gathered together earlier this month to compete for their chance at glory at the 2018 Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association National Championships. To help you get a feel for what the IHSA is all about, we rounded up three of the winning riders for a question and answer session to learn all about their experience at Nationals and with the IHSA in general. Let’s meet our riders!

Jennifer DePietro is a freshman at Johnson & Wales University who is majoring in business administration. This is Jennifer’s first year competing in IHSA and she was the national champion in Individual Intermediate Over Fences.

Fun fact: Jennifer really wants to learn how to rein!

Photo by Noel Fratto

Alison Santucci is a junior studying neuroscience at Skidmore College. She has shown in IHSA for three years now and recently won the Collegiate Cup Walk/Trot/Canter division at IHSA Nationals. More information regarding the Collegiate Cup and various other classes offered by the IHSA can be found HERE.

Fun fact: Alison’s father spelled her name wrong on her birth certificate, but thankfully it was corrected shortly after the mistake was realized.

Photo by Claire Carpenter

Stephanie Zimicki competes as an Alumnus for Alfred University. She now attends SUNY New Paltz as a grad student studying accounting and has been competing in IHSA since 2012. This year Stephanie was crowned champion in the Alumni Flat division at Nationals.

Fun fact: Stephanie is TERRIFIED of birds!

Photo by Katie Zacharda

 Prior to joining your college’s IHSA team, what was your riding experience?

  • Jennifer: “I’ve been riding for 12 years and competing for nine. I own two horses that I show in the equitation, hunters and jumpers. I compete all throughout New England with them during the summer. This will be my first year competing as an adult, but last year I showed in 3’- 3’3 junior equitation, 3’ -3’3 hunters and 3’ jumpers.”
  • Alison: “I first started riding for a few weeks out of each summer at a western horse camp. I finally convinced my parents to let me take lessons at age 13 and started riding English and jumping. I got hooked and rode throughout high school and competed in the jumpers at local shows.”
  • Stephanie: “I grew up in Western New York on my grandfather’s boarding farm where I was on a horse as soon as I could sit up on my own. Riding was a family business; my mom grew up riding and my brother and I followed suit. I took to riding and my brother took to driving. From a very young age we both loved to compete. I competed in 4-H, showing at the local country fairs and made it to the state fair level several years.”

Why did you decide to compete in the IHSA?

  • Jennifer: “I wanted to be a part of a team at my school to feel more connected. I competed in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association for all four years of high school and I really liked the experience and learned a lot from it.”
  • Alison: “I wasn’t planning on riding in college until I first visited Skidmore and saw how rigorous, personalized and just downright fun their program was. After my initial evaluation ride my freshman year I called my mom and told her there was no way that I was going to make the team. I did end up making it my first year and it’s been the most amazing experience ever since.”
  • Stephanie: “I fell in love with IHSA and knew I had to ride in school after going to watch my brother compete at a western show at Alfred University. Although he was on the Cornell riding team, I knew I wanted to be part of the Alfred riding program. I loved the atmosphere of the program and knew I would fit right in; it was my home away from home before I was even accepted in to the school. I remember after that weekend of going to watch the show I went home and took an extra lesson every chance I could, hoping to be good enough to make the team.”

How did you train in preparation for IHSA Nationals?

  • Jennifer: “I would go to the barn three to five days a week, either after or before class. I also rode my own horse as much as I could so that I had the maximum time in the saddle possible. At practice, instead of warming up a horse and then jumping it, one of my captains would warm up the horse and I would get on cold and do a few courses. I rode two to three horses each practice, some that I had a really hard time with and some that I got along with very well, so that I could end with a good feel.”
  • Alison: “I normally have a jumping lesson once a week, but it turned into an intense private flat with my head coach a few weeks before Zones. She made a point to put me on horses that challenged my weaknesses. I rode daily, sometimes even twice a day, and spent a lot of time working without my stirrups. We also have an athletic trainer for the team so I was able to supplement all of my riding with personalized exercise programs, which I find is very beneficial.”
  • Stephanie: “I am fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to ride a lot before Nationals given my full-time riding and teaching job at Lucky C Stables with Susan and Gary Clark. My bosses were so supportive of my decision to ride in the Alumni and Susan kept an eye on me and gave me extra opportunities to ride whenever possible. In addition, my coach Rebecca Jacobson, who also happened to be one of my coaches while I was in Alfred, and is now my coworker at Lucky C, helped me tremendously.”

How do you prepare yourself for riding a horse you are not familiar with?

  • Jennifer: “Getting on an unfamiliar horse and jumping around a course is not an easy thing to do. I try to think of my opening circle as my time to really test out my horse and see what I have. I know right from walking in if my horse is going to accept my hand and frame up or not. I know right from the moment I ask for the trot if the horse is super sensitive to my leg or not. Once I have the canter, I try to ask for more than I need and then settle into the right canter so I know how the horse will respond if I move up or wait for a distance.”
  • Alison: “At Skidmore, we really value the basics of riding, which makes it easy to adjust to a new horse. In the ring, I always remind myself to not get too involved with what’s going on with my horse, but to still be present and actually riding for every single step.”
  • Stephanie: “Nancy Kohler, my coach at Alfred University, always taught us that our job as an IHSA rider was to make the horse look its best. So that is the attitude I go in the ring with, I want the judges to notice me because my horse looks happy, like they are enjoying the ride just as much as I am. I also love to compete and love the idea of riding under pressure; I do my best when I have less time to overthink something and simply have to figure it out when it counts.”

How do you feel IHSA has impacted you as a person?

  • Jennifer: “Being on a team is a special thing. Being surrounded by a group of people with the same passion as you is a wonderful thing to have. I’ve definitely grown as a rider and as a horseman. I’ve learned that not every horse is going to be my type of ride, but as long as I try my best, I’ll be alright.”
  • Alison: “Riding on an IHSA team makes me a better student and more adaptable person. Since I get to leave campus to do something that I love and that challenges me for two hours each day, I’m able to be more efficient in my schoolwork. As a whole, the IHSA has taught me that I can handle any issue with a plan and remember the steps needed to get it done.”
  • Stephanie: “IHSA has been a huge part of my life; it kept me sane in college, facilitated lifelong friendships and helped me become a better horse person. I had the opportunity to ride both hunt seat and western in Alfred which meant I was away at a horse show almost every weekend and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I had the opportunity to ride some amazing horses and learn new things, like reining for instance. But it was more than just competing; it was the sense of belonging, teamwork and support that made the biggest impact.”

What suggestions do you have for other riders who may want to join their school’s IHSA team?

  • Jennifer: “I would 100% recommend to other riders to join their school’s IHSA team. It’s a great way to connect with the school and feel like you belong there. It’s really an experience like no other, as well as a privilege, to be able to ride all of these different horses, all from different backgrounds, and learn something new each time. It’s also an excellent way to meet new people and make new friends who have the same interests as you do.”
  • Alison: “After joining the team, I had to relearn a lot—everything from subtle canter transitions to my entire leg position. It took me about a year and a half to really get a handle on things. It was really discouraging at points, but really paid off after months of practice. The IHSA requires hard work and perseverance; don’t be afraid of the tough moments, as they turn into the best learning experiences.”
  • Stephanie: “Do it, IHSA is something you will never regret. Whether you have always been the horse girl in school or are interested in trying something new, IHSA is a team for everyone.”

Of your entire IHSA career, what IHSA horse have you drawn that has been your favorite and why?

  • Jennifer: “My favorite IHSA horse is by far Pasta from the University of Rhode Island. She has been there for a lot of ‘firsts’ and helped me achieve many goals during my first year of IHSA. She’s very brave and honest and responds to aids very well. My first time riding her, I pulled her for both my flat class and my over fences class and I ended up with my first reserve high point rider award. She also helped me secure my points and qualify for Regionals. Lastly, I was very grateful to have pulled her at Zones, because she helped me qualify for Nationals.”
  • Alison: “I also competed in the Collegiate Cup WTC last year at Nationals and I miraculously drew one of our horses named Nica. I had ridden her weekly leading up to the show, and she had taught me an insane amount about balance, patience and subtlety on a horse; all of which I was able to put together during my class. My ride with Nica at Nationals was one of the first moments where I really realized how far I’d come since joining the team and felt that things had finally fallen into place. After happy crying through the entire awards ceremony, I ended up placing second. It was one of the most unreal and memorable moments of my life and I’m so glad that I got to do it with a horse that had taught me so much.”
  • Stephanie: “I have to say I think my favorite draw was Paulie, a Skidmore horse I had the pleasure of riding my junior year when I competed at Nationals. I just remember him being so comfortable and thinking that I didn’t care what the outcome of the day was, I was just so happy to have had such a great ride. He made my nationals trip not only successful but more fun than I thought possible!”

What are your riding goals?

  • Jennifer: “My future goals in riding include competing in IHSA for another three years, and hopefully making it to Nationals at least one more time. I would like to qualify and compete in a few equitation finals this year with my coming nine-year-old, who I’ve had since he was four. My goal is to never fully give up riding, even if I have to work for lessons and catch ride, because this sport has made me who I am and I don’t know what I would do without it.”
  • Alison: “I still have one year left at Skidmore, during which I just want to ride and learn as much as I can. Since I’m planning on attending medical school after graduation, I unfortunately won’t have time to ride the amount that I currently do. Regardless, I am definitely going to make it a priority to continue riding to some extent to be able to refine what I’ve gained from the IHSA and keep learning during these next few hectic years.”
  • Stephanie: I am competitive in nature, so I want to keep competing and keep bettering myself as a rider and as a horseperson. Although I still have my old 4-H horse who now assists my mom in teaching younger kids the basics of riding, I want to own a horse and go horse show every weekend again. I love the pressure of horse shows and want do all the big rated shows I never had the opportunity to do growing up.”

Go IHSA and Go Jumping!