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Equestrian sports: Stable partnership

Valencia sophomore and her horse excel in a lesser-known athletic endeavor

Posted: May 9, 2010 10:31 p.m.
Updated: May 10, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Valencia High School sophomore Jane Kang has a unique bond with her horse Monte, a bond that is tough to achieve but critical to success in equestrian competition.

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It’s fitting that a course is on the outskirts of town, hidden away behind hills deep in Bouquet Canyon.

Down a short dirt road on the left lies a loop with 14 jumps spread out inside called Silver Gate Farms.

Off in the distance, you can hear the trotting of hooves tapping the ground.

If you wait, you will see partners working together in sport.

A valley so rich in equine history, the Santa Clarita Valley has so little history in equestrian sports.

But equestrian sports are here, tucked under an athletic landscape dominated by more mainstream sports like football, baseball and soccer.

Seven local schools, though, field teams that compete in the Los Angeles Interscholastic Equestrian League.

“I don’t think it’s very popular. Most people don’t know we have an IEL team and compete,” says 16-year-old Valencia High sophomore Jane Kang.

Kang took first place in the junior varsity division at the IEL’s final competition of the year at Hansen Dam on April 17. She was the only Santa Clarita Valley athlete to finish above ninth place among the freshman, JV and varsity divisions.

Kang said the unsuspecting eye might not take notice of her athletic prowess, but equestrian sports are demanding both physically and mentally.

They also are unique in that they are a partnership between human and animal.

“It’s give and take,” says Julie Van Loo, the head trainer at Silver Gate Farms who is also Kang’s trainer. “She has to have enough of a trust factor between the two of them. (The sport) is also 90 percent concentration.”

The horserider has the task of sending commands to the horse via his or her legs or by pulling on reins.

It sounds simple, but imagine the connection and concentration the rider and horse must have.

With cues, usually by the rider using their legs, a horse can be told which fences to jump over on a given course.

The rider must also appear to be balanced and must guide the horse to keep it in rhythm.

“The common misconception is that (the rider) just sits there,” Van Loo says.

A rider is judged on their horsemanship (how well they control the horse) and equitation (position and posture while riding).

The horse should keep a rhythm in its gait and that rhythm should stay the same throughout the course. Jumps should appear to be in stride.

“She is judged on her ability to do that and what she looks like on a horse,” Van Loo says of Kang and riders like her. “Her eyes look up, her back is flat, she has to be quiet, her feet are in position.”

Horses, Van Loo says, don’t reason. They retain. So a horse is trained to follow cues. Yet, she adds, they can be temperamental.

That’s where the relationship comes into play.

It’s clear that Kang and her horse Monte, which she named because it represents power like a mountain, have a strong bond.

Monte, who didn’t have an owner prior to Kang, affectionately nudges her with his muzzle.

He takes direction from her well.

“He adores her,” Van Loo says.

That relationship has helped make the duo the most accomplished amateur team in the Santa Clarita Valley.

In two other shows, Kang and Monte placed second.

Kang is one of 31 athletes who competed in the IEL from seven different local schools — Hart, Valencia, West Ranch, Golden Valley and Saugus highs, Trinity Classical Academy and Rio Norte Junior High.

The high schools have little affiliation other than the athletes represent the schools.

Yet, according to Saugus High team adviser Howard Siegel, there is fundraising done through the school and that helps pay for insurance.

The sport is dominated by girls in the IEL, but that’s not to say there aren’t boys competing as well.

At the international level and in college, females outnumber male riders, yet one of the world’s best professional riders is a male in America’s own Steffen Peters.  

Males compete against females in the IEL and on the international stage.

There are 18 NCAA Division I equestrian programs, including Fresno State.

Other four-year universities, such as USC and Stanford, compete in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association as club teams.

At the NCAA level, schools do hand out scholarships.

“We’ve had a number of girls going to NCAA schools where they really look that they competed just like any athlete,” says IEL Board President Darlene Kaplan.

Kaplan says NCAA schools recruit and riders commit to colleges just as any other athlete would.

As far as popularity is concerned, Kaplan says the IEL has been around 26 years and has quadrupled in size compared to its beginning.

The IEL doesn’t have any data on when the Santa Clarita schools got involved, but judging based off the age of most of these local schools, a majority would have started in the last five years.

It’s definitely an expensive sport.

Siegel says he knows of a girl whose family paid $50,000 for a horse.

Most schools, Kaplan says, don’t pay for trainers, which could be another hefty expense.

And in almost every case, the trainer is the most important person in the equation because they work extensively with horse and rider.

The goal is for the three to come together in a perfect harmony as Kang, Monte and Van Loo have come together.

The future of the sport in the Santa Clarita Valley is hard to predict, yet there is lots of room for growth.

Kang helps give it a face and that’s a start.

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