March 20, 2017
By John Frierson
UGAAA Staff Writer
BISHOP -- Madison Beasley couldn't look more at home. Before her stands Otto, big and reddish-brown with a blaze of white down his face, and the Georgia equestrian senior is brushing and cleaning, caring and connecting.
"Honestly, to me, the most rewarding part is getting to make bonds with so many different horses," said Beasley, though she admits that Otto is her favorite.
There is no collegiate sport like equestrian for a lot of reasons, the most obvious being that it's the only one that involves a participant from another species. A football is a football, a 4-iron is a 4-iron, but these big and beautiful animals are alive, with their own personalities and their own daily needs.
Equestrian also offers the opportunity for incredibly deep bonds to be forged. The special relationships between the riders and horses, no other collegiate sport has anything like it, either.
"I always live by the rule that the horses are our teammates, too, but they just can't take care of themselves," Beasley said. "They can't clean their own stall so we're required to do it once a week; they can't give themselves baths and they can't do anything about it when they're hurt.
"Having respect for our human teammates is one thing; when you have horses who are also your teammates, I think it's very important that you put as much time into them as you do the humans."
Those close bonds are why former Georgia riders will often come back to the UGA Equestrian Complex -- yes, they'll visit with coach Meghan Boenig and her staff, but really, they want to visit with the horses that earned a place in their hearts.
One Georgia alum, Boenig said, has a horse here "that she just thinks is her magical unicorn."
If you're "horse-crazy," Boenig said, you understand.
"Every single one of those girls can name every single favorite horse that they have and they're a part of their lives," she said. "It's not a piece of equipment in anybody's mind. You form a special bond; you feel you know them and they know you -- it's quite special."
If you're riding for Georgia that means you're really good, which means you've been around horses for a long, long time. Beasley took her first riding lesson when she was seven, she said, and it didn't go well. Her mom had bought her a package of four lessons, but after the first one she wasn't interested in the next three.
"I went to my mom and was like, I want nothing to do with this. It's too much work, it smells bad, the horse is big, it's scary and I don't want to do it," said Beasley, from Alpharetta, Ga. "But she'd already paid for the lessons so she wanted me to finish it out and do the three more lessons.
"By the time I got to my last lesson I fell for it, and I fell for it hard."
It was a different beginning for senior Emma Schauder, who grew up in Greenwich, Conn., where her parents owned a horse farm, Country Lane Farm.
"I've been used to since birth being very hands-on, with a barn, literally, in the backyard," Schauder said.
For Boenig horses were an early obsession, as well. She said she used to collect the horse hair that piled up from brushing and keep it in her room.
"My mom was like, `What is wrong with you? Your room, it always smells, what's going on?' It was because I loved the grooming, I loved the horses, I loved the smell -- I loved all of it," Boenig said.
For Beasley and Schauder, the time spent with the horses out of competition or practice, it's as meaningful and enjoyable as participating in the meets.
"It brings out the passion in you," Beasley said. "When you're taking care of them and spending time with them, they work so much harder for you when you work hard for them."
And Georgia's riders work plenty hard outside of practice and competitions. Each rider is assigned a horse that she has to look after during the year. They brush them, groom them, apply fly spray and sunscreen (who knew?) if needed, wash them down after practice and look after their general welfare, to name but a few responsibilities.
Before meets, the manes are braided and they get hair extensions braided into their tail hair, "to make it look a little more full," Beasley said.
Most of the work brings a smile to their faces, though not all. The UGA Equestrian Complex is large, a 109-acre farm, and a lot of the horses live outside. If the horse you're looking for that day is out in paddock B4, "which we call the `back 40' because sometimes it feels like it's 40 miles away," Beasley said, then you might have a 20-minute hike to and from the paddock. And no, they can't ride the horses back to the barn.
"Normally for an hour lesson, I spend about three-and-a-half hours at the barn," Schauder said.
It's the definition of a labor of love.
"I think the pride that you take in the horses certainly is reflected in how they look and how they perform," Boenig said. "You can absolutely see a shine to their coat; the hands-on attention and the great grooming is reflected in their coat."
When Boenig and her staff are recruiting, they're not just looking for the best riders, she said. A recruit's commitment to the horses is a big part of the equation, as well.
"It's really about the character and the investment that these athletes have," she said. "We talk to trainers, we talk to parents, we talk to people that are on the circuit watching. The kid that gets up at 3 o'clock in the morning before that show starts to invest that time with their horse, absolutely matters."
Schauder said she gets back from the horses as much as she gives.
"I really couldn't imagine going to a college where I wasn't spending every day at the barn," she said, "so I'm really grateful for the opportunity to come here and be a part of this program because it allows me to still get in touch with the horses."
And as with any college student, Schauder has her up and down days. The horses help there, too.
"If you're having a bad day you can go tell your horse, and they're never going to judge you," she said, laughing.
John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men's Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He's also on Twitter: @FriersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.