Boots on the Ground: IHSA Nationals

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For the next few days, we'll have two Western riders reporting from the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association finals in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They'll share their experiences to give you a firsthand look at what it's like to compete at the prestigious event. Both riders compete for the University of Wisconsin–River Falls.

Here's an introduction to Elizabeth Kieffer, an animal science/equine business major.

To say it all started in a nail salon simplifies the story of events that led me to join the University of Wisconsin - River Falls IHSA Western show team. My story really began on a cold mid-December day in 2009, when I first laid eyes on a 2-year-old filly fresh off the racetrack. I never realized the life-changing decision I made the day to call Frosted Fox, or “Jackie” as I fondly refer to her, my own. We all have defining moments in life, and she was definitely mine. I looked into the eyes of that shiny, slick-coated bay and realized what I wanted. I sought every opportunity to learn new things, to better my horsemanship, and become a more confident, able rider. But, as I was a green rider, she was my greatest challenge. I learned through trial by fire with her.

Elizabeth Kieffer and her ribbons from the IHSA semifinals.

Elizabeth Kieffer and her ribbons from the IHSA semifinals.

My horse passion led me to UW-River Falls where I pursued a degree in Animal Science/Equine Business Management. I struggled to find my place at River Falls, though. Between covering the expense of horse ownership and caring for my animals, I did little else but work in my free time. One summer day, I decided to treat myself and wound up in a nail salon on Main Street. This is where I first met my coach, my “mama falcon.” I chatted with the nail tech about my horse, and eventually my soon-to-be coach Janie Hout leaned over to mention to me that she taught riding lessons. She also said that she coaches the Western show team and asked if I’d planned to compete. I explained that I had no money, no show clothes, no show experience, and no idea what IHSA even was! She gave me a business card, and urged me to try out.

After a few months, I called the number on the card and scheduled a lesson. The lesson started with a warm-up. Janie observed and evaluated me as I rode. Several minutes into my warm-up, she asked a series of questions. “Have you shown before?” she asked. To which I answered, “No.” She asked if I’d ever done any breed shows. Again, “no.” “Did you try out for the team?” she asked. “No,” I said. “Why didn’t you try out, why haven’t you shown, why aren’t you showing?” she asked me. I was a little overwhelmed. Though our lesson concluded, my journey had barely begun.

We exchanged emails and she invited me to practice with the team. I felt like an outsider at first, but that didn’t last long. I am blessed with the most amazing, supportive group of girls as teammates who wanted to see me succeed from the beginning. At my first show these girls helped me get into my show outfit and put my hair up and makeup on. I felt that I had finally found my niche. Only now do I realize the magnitude of these first moments.

My first year with the team, I earned my first blue ribbons ever, one of which was at semi-finals in Texas. I have improved my horsemanship skills tremendously. I am excited to compete for my team and school at Nationals this year. I hope from my story, people learn that anyone can do this, just be confident, step outside of your comfort zone, take advantage of opportunity, and pursue your passion. I sincerely thank my team for their support, my captains for their extra time spent to help me improve, my coach who believed in me, and my horse who drove me me to seek out this crazy, beautiful journey that I call, “Living the Dream: On the Road to Nationals.”

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