June 2018 - IHSA National Finals

Stanford Equestrian leads California contingent in collegiate finals back East.

by Taylor Singmaster

The Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association National Finals were held May 3-6 in Harrisburg, PA, at the historic Harrisburg Farm Show Complex. The IHSA is comprised of over 400 varsity and club collegiate teams, with the top 16 qualifying through the Regional and Zone Finals to compete for the Collegiate Cup. Representing IHSA Zone 8 (USHJA Zone 10), Stanford University won their 13th straight Zone Finals, affording them the chance to be one of the top 16 teams competing for a National title. They finished third behind Skidmore College and the 2017 reigning IHSA National Champions, Savannah College of Art and Design.

Team Competition

Coming off of a third place finish in 2017, Stanford University traveled to Harrisburg with a young, inexperienced team. With only one senior competing for the Cardinal, Head Coach Vanessa Bartsch knew her riders would have to train especially hard for the big event, with the additional hurdle of juggling her students’ rigorous academic course loads.

“We definitely had to get creative,” Bartsch explained. “Our Open Fences rider, Kelsi (Okun), could only make two team practice times when our ideal is four or five, so we started having her show up at the end of lessons a couple of days a week—biking over to the barn from one class, jumping a horse or two ‘cold,’ and then biking back to her next class. Our Open Flat rider, Caroline (Soane), started coming out in the mornings to ride along with the trainers from Willow Tree, having them give her pointers while they were working their own horses. And, we decided to roll all of our Friday practices into one very, very large 15-horse practice so that our flat riders could get experience working with the ring spacing needed to show at the Finals.”

Stanford faced additional challenges in getting their team across the country, with backpacks full of homework, long flights, layovers, a three-hour time zone change and the added disadvantage of not being at all familiar with any of the possible draws. The IHSA National Finals are a group effort with over two-dozen teams near the host Zone providing over 100 horses for this event.

“In addition to the pressure that all teams face of riding against the best riders in the country, we are in the unenviable position of not knowing any of the horses, (seven of the top 10 teams provided horses),” Bartsch explained. “We are so grateful to these schools for bringing such amazing horses but there is a definite advantage to being able to draw your own horses, let alone ride them in the arena on Monday and Tuesday of the events. Plus, (Assistant Coach) Tina Davey and I have to get our athletes up at 5 a.m. each morning to watch warm-ups, which is 2 a.m. California-time, so we are pretty jet-lagged throughout. We joke that it is like competing in Japan!”
But for Stanford, all the work paid off with their third place finish, with some of their athletes’ best rides of the season, helping the young team defend the legacy of Stanford Equestrian.

A Beginner’s Big Contribution

Jillian Rogers, a sophomore from Santa Barbara majoring in Bioengineering, posted a big win for Stanford in Team Walk Trot, a position that goes to the rider on the team with no show experience and less than 24 weeks of instruction prior to college. “It was exciting watching Jill win and I think the whole team was in tears,” said Bartsch. “Even though she hadn’t had formal lessons, didn’t know her diagonals, or how to correctly pick up the canter, she rode horses each summer at camp and spent hours out on the trail. She put in countless hours at the barn this year, taking up to five lessons a week, as she really wanted to make her teammates proud.”

Rogers attributes much of her success to her teammates and coaches. “Showing was totally new to me when I came to college,” she explained. “It has been a huge help to have my teammates help prepare me for what to expect at Nationals. My team is always there to fix my hairnet or offer advice with arena navigation, and I love them so much! My coaches helped me polish my riding and drill every transition so I would be competitive with the impressive talent at Nationals.  They pushed me to work hard to improve my riding, and it truly paid off.”

Just after Rogers’ big win, Claire Womack, a sophomore from Brooklyn, NY majoring in Product Design with a minor in History, rode in Team Walk Trot Canter trying to defend her 2017 Championship in the class, coming away as the Reserve National Champion. “I came back to Nationals without any expectations. Last year, I had a wonderful draw and the judges liked the way I rode, but I approached Nationals this year knowing that, in the IHSA, these variables are nearly impossible to control. It was tricky to get settled in the tack after waiting all day for my class, but my horse was such an awesome draw that when I got into the ring I just had fun,” Womack said of her experience.

Stanford’s lone senior competing for the Cardinal at Nationals, Caroline Soane, not only helped Stanford with placing in two of the most competitive classes, but her finish in Open Flat was particularly sentimental for Bartsch because this is their fourth National Finals together. Soane, a Human Biology major hailing from Denver, CO, started her career at Stanford in Novice, working her way up through the ranks over the years.

“When they went to draw for Open Flat, the draw steward told them to line them up alphabetically by the name of their horse, presuming that all Open riders surely owned a horse,” said Bartsch. “Here you have this amazing student leader, who is serving as team captain, has just taken the MCATs, is applying to Medical School, and she has never owned a horse, started in Novice, and she is able to finish fourth in the country in Open. As her coach it made me incredibly proud of all she has accomplished.”

Although Caroline is also proud of her progress throughout her four years on the team and her four Nationals appearances, she quickly deflects the accolades. “I cherished the time spent with my teammates in Harrisburg. I loved seeing everyone support and cheer for each other. Having all my teammates helped me maintain my energy and feel supported. I was so proud to see everyone on the team come together this weekend. I will treasure the friendships I have formed through the equestrian team and the incredible privilege of having been able to spend my time between classes doing what I love,” said Soane.

Jackie Marks. Photo courtesy of Jackie Marks

IHSA Individual Competition

In addition to Stanford in the team competition, riders from four California schools competed for individual titles.  Sonoma State sent two riders, Michelle Villasenor and Courtney Debrunner to represent Zone 8 in Individual Walk Trot with Villasenor taking third. A sophomore from Glendale, CA majoring in Computer Science, she said, “My team, coach (Carrie Hover), and I have been working hard these past few months, so I felt extremely lucky to be given this incredible opportunity to represent our school in Pennsylvania. I was nervous to be competing alongside some of the best riders in the country, but so excited to have made it this far and be a part of this competition. My time in the arena felt like a dream, and is a very special experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Hover, her coach, concurs. “I am very privileged to coach such a great group of young women and I really enjoy watching their growth and progress as individuals and riders. It was amazing to witness Michelle earn third place at the IHSA National Horse Show,” Hover says. “The Sonoma State Team provides young riders with an incredible opportunity to further develop their riding potential, compete across the U.S., and develop lifelong friendships with teammates and coaches.”

Jackie Marks, a sophomore at the University of Southern California, hailing from Westlake Village, CA and majoring in Business Administration, also finished third in Individual Intermediate Fences. Marks has been riding since she was 8, said that she still faces competition anxiety. “My number one focus at Nationals was just breathing and riding the horse that was underneath me,” she explained.  Her coach, Kathryn Griffiths knew she had a strong chance for a top finish. “She is always up for any challenge I give her whether it be getting on a wild young horse or giving the older school master a tune-up. She rides so effectively and with style. I believed in her 100 percent, so to watch her have such success at the national level is beyond exciting,” said Griffiths.

Finishing out a trio of third place finishes for Californian riders, Christine Wastila, a freshman from San Diego, CA studying Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, took the yellow ribbon in Individual Walk Trot Canter. “Riding in college is how I stay connected to myself, in a way,” said Wastila. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed by rigorous coursework and the other stresses life brings, but riding reminds me of the love I have for horses and they joy they have a way of bringing.” Her coach, Sandrine Seifert notes that she is, “particularly proud of Christine for all of her accomplishments on the team, and as a first-year student. Christine is always super focused, and always in a winning mind frame. No matter what horse she drew, she rode it to win.”

Other strong individual showings came from senior (and co-terminal Master’s) Psychology major, Cecilia Lang-Ree, with four consecutive top 10 finishes at the IHSA National Finals. Lang-Ree took eighth in Individual Novice Flat just before teammate Kelsi Okun’s 11th place finish in the Cacchione Cup Medal Finals. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo’s Irini Pateras and Ivy Kaplan also competed in Individual Intermediate Fences and Individual Walk Trot Canter, respectively. And, Hroblack from Cal Poly, Pomona and Aleena Karamally from University of San Diego, competed in Individual Intermediate Flat.


Author Taylor Singmaster is a former National Collegiate Equestrian Association rider, for the University of South Carolina.  She works at BOK in the Bay Area, teaches at Webb Ranch, coaches Stanford’s Western Team and teaches P.E. for Stanford.


Stanford, Zone 8, Team Placings:

Stanford finished 3rd with points earned by:
•    Jillian Rogers (so.): Champion in Team Walk Trot
•    Claire Womack (so.): Reserve Champion in Team Walk Trot Canter
•    Alexandra Ulmer (jr.): 4th in Team Intermediate Flat
•    Caroline Soane (sr.): 5th in Team Intermediate Fences and 4th in Team Open Flat
•    Kelsi Okun (so.): 5th in Team Open Fences
•    (Hannah Ankeny (so.) Team Novice Fences and Anna Salamone (so.) Team Novice Flat, also competed for the team.)