DENMARK – Using a series of subtle gestures along with some gentle coaxing, Noelle Weis directs six teenage girls and their willful horses into position for a photograph. The horses respond gracefully to their riders’ deft manipulations – so deft they are undetectable to the layman’s eye – and within a minute the horses maneuver into semi-circle and present a nearly perfect equestrian array.
But, no, not quite yet. Weis has detected an asymmetry in the alignment and, with a few more hand signals, she has Jordan Dombrowicki guiding Fancy into a nimble sidestep that closes a small gap and the Denmark Equestrians are ready for their photo.
It is for just such equestrian skills that the Denmark riders will be judged this weekend when they compete in the Wisconsin Interscholastic Horsemanship Association district tournament in Merrill, WI. The team, consisting of riders from the Denmark School District (which includes the middle and high schools as well as the local community school), are brand new at this, having just formed a team last spring at the urging of Anna Johnson. Johnson, a member of the Denmark dance team at the time, knew that select colleges offered equestrian competition and sought it out at the high school level. She discovered the WIHA, founded in 2007 for the purpose of, according to its web site, promoting “continuous growth in programs fostering horsemanship education, sponsor(ing) activities to encourage interscholastic participation.”
“It’s the greatest feeling when I think of what we created,” said Johnson, a senior. “I had been thinking about this for a couple of years before Mara, Noelle and Carolyn and I finally took action.”
Mara Weis is the daughter of Noelle, who is the team’s trainer and the owner of Creekview Riding Center in De Pere, where the team practices. Carolyn Shusta is Johnson’s mother and also a Viking coach.
“It’s always an honor to be wearing the team jacket and knowing that I am one of the founders of this amazing team,” Johnson added.
That’s right. The Denmark Equestrians now have their own uniforms, which include purple shirts with “Denmark” emblazoned inside an upright horseshoe, as well as gray jackets with their names stitched along the front.
Mara agreed that watching it all come together has been satisfying beyond her dreams.
“It’s pretty amazing to see all our hard work pay off,” she said. “I had my doubts at first but I can now see our team members are very dedicated to what they’re doing. (Anna) and I have tried to use our abilities and knowledge to help the other team members improve. It has been so cool to see riders who started with little to no knowledge being ready to compete with us and do really well.”
Starting From Scratch
But a lot went into getting here.
After discovering the WIHA, Johnson and her mother approached the Denmark school administrator as well as the high school and middle school principals. After that, it was on to the school board to elicit its approval. The first hurdles cleared, Anna, Mara, Carolyn and Noelle produced fliers and sent out emails to determine interest, then held a couple of meetings to answer questions.
The response was robust, with a dozen youngsters showing up. Among them were several who had exactly no horse riding experience and even a couple of them decided to sign up. By the time the team started practicing in June, nine had opted to stay on. Seven are ready to compete while two others are along just to learn the sport and improve.
One of the novices is Ellah DeGrand, a 13-year old who had never ridden before, and yet is already competing at the 4-H level and will ride at district this weekend.
“She just got on a horse for the first time in April,” mother Kelley DeGrand said. “From the first practice of not wanting to get on the horse and kicking and screaming and crying and throwing a fit to cantering around here is just amazing in just a few months. She decided to come out because it was something different, something that sparked her interest. She loves animals.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Mara, who has been riding, according to her mother, since “before she was born.” She actually got on her first horse at age 3 and by 4 or 5 was competent enough to ride on her own. She began competing in fourth grade. Anna has been riding seriously for the past four or five years. Several other riders have experience, too, and just recently competed in a 4-H event.
Noelle, who has a degree in Equine Management from the University of Findlay in Ohio, began teaching equestrian about a dozen years ago at Clearview. Weis leased the facility for 10 years and bought it almost two years ago.
“I wasn’t sure how this would all work out,” Weis said, noting all the logistics involved. “I wasn’t sure how to get all the kids who didn’t have horses involved. But the older kids have been really good about sharing their horses. They all work really well together and the parents have really chipped in whenever we’ve needed them to. There’s no booster club. The parents have been our booster club.”
The team has sold candy bars and water at various school events to help raise money for such things as uniforms, stable fees, tournament fees and travel.
Just as impressive, Weis said, is the commitment the girls have shown. She and Shusta said they told the girls they expected them to practice in their spare time when they weren’t officially training.
“To be honest, they’ve practiced more than I thought they would,” Weis said. “There are a couple of girls who have really surprised me with how much they have improved. These are girls who have never had professional instruction before and now they are growing leaps and bounds.”
The Denmark Equestrian Team will compete in showmanship (demonstrating a rider’s presentation of her horse) and riding, which can involve small jumps or guiding the horse through a series of memorized patterns, which includes walk, trot and canter. They will present into two categories – Western and Hunt Seat. The former is as it sounds, with the riders in Western gear and a fancy halter, while Hunt Seat involves an English style, including breeches and bridle.
The WIHA is divided into six districts (Denmark is in District 6) and four class sizes. Denmark is competing in class B for teams with 6 to 10 riders. Only three Class B teams will compete at District 6 Saturday and Sunday and the top two teams will advance to state in Madison Oct. 28-29.
Weis has been a judge at district events and has a sense of what her and Shusta’s first-year team might be able to accomplish. She is, let us say, guardedly optimistic.
“A lot of it was just getting this thing up and going,” she admitted. “But looking at this team, I have to say we’ve got a shot at this. If they perform (at district) like they perform here, they have as much shot as anyone else.”
Whatever the results this weekend, a dream has been realized and if Madison and a state berth aren’t in the cards, well, it will hardly dim the satisfaction of the team’s co-founders.
“I take horseback riding very seriously,” Anna said. “So I don’t have time for another sport and I missed a team setting. In creating this team, we got to provide an opportunity for other equestrians to be in a school sport.
“It’s extremely rewarding to see the progress this team has made. Everyone has improved so much and I’m looking forward to competing with them at the district show.”