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Equestrian Club rebuilds community after year away from the barn

| Thursday, October 28, 2021

Set amidst rolling, bright green hills is a cream-colored metal barn with a pine green roof. Backing up to a picturesque Michigan woodscape, you’d think you were a lot further out in the country, though in reality, you’re only seven and a half miles from the tri-campus. This is Lucky Horse Equestrian Center, the place Notre Dame Equestrian Club president Lauren Pardi calls her “second home.”

“When I’m at the barn, I’m able to just be outside and be with nature and the animals,” the Notre Dame senior from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, said. “It takes your mind off the day-to-day stress and pressure of being a student at Notre Dame. It’s a three-hour break where you just get to think about the horses and being in the moment.”

Pardi started riding horses when she was just three years old and even owned a horse throughout her childhood. Naturally, she joined the Equestrian Club at the beginning of her first year in order to stay involved with the sport she loves. Since then, she has represented the club in many horse show competitions and served as the secretary last year. Pardi said it’s the club’s close-knit community that inspired her to take on the role of president this year.

Claire Reid | The Observer
Beginning riders at a weekly lesson at Lucky Horse Equestrian Center.

“I just love all the people on this team and the friendships it has brought me,” she said. “We spend so much time together and bond at all of our competitions.”

Community-building is particularly important to her this year after the University’s COVID-19 travel restrictions completely prevented the club from riding or visiting the barn all of the 2020-2021 academic year.

During this time, the team held bi-weekly yoga sessions, regular weight training practices, a trivia night and a pizza party to stay connected, but Pardi said they had a difficult time recruiting new members.

“The horses are the heart of the club,” she explained. “Last year, we couldn’t do the thing that people joined the club to do, so our turnout at those things wasn’t the best.”

Pardi said she is committed to hosting social events this year in order to rebuild and improve upon the camaraderie that has been a highlight of the club for herself and so many other members.

Each fall, prior to the pandemic, competitive members of the club traveled nearly every weekend to compete in horse shows against other colleges and universities through the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA).  

“The competition team was so close because we’re driving four to eight hours away, staying in hotels, getting dinner… that’s who you hang out with all day,” Pardi recalled. “But there’s about half the club that doesn’t compete at all.”

Even before COVID, she said, she noticed an awkward division between competitive members and non-competitive, partial and social members. As president, she said she is trying to integrate all members of the club into its culture, especially non-competitive members, first-years and sophomores. 

This semester, the Equestrian Club has held a pizza night, a door decorating event and a karaoke fundraiser at Tap House on the Edge in South Bend. Hannah Shoemake, the club’s public relations officer and a junior at Saint Mary’s, said they also plan to host a country-themed dance for all membership levels to enjoy in the near future.

Saint Mary’s junior Liz Andersen is a non-competitive member and she serves as secretary of the club. She described the different membership levels the club offers.

“We have three membership types,” she explained. “We have a full membership, which does one lesson a week; a partial member rides every other week, and then we have our social membership.”

Social members, who pay significantly fewer club dues, have the opportunity to ride two to three times a semester and are invited to all club social functions. Andersen said the different levels of membership provide opportunities for beginning riders to get involved in a low-pressure setting. 

“We’re really trying to emphasize that anyone can join, even if you don’t want to ride that much,” she said.

The club also offers more involved opportunities for beginners. IHSA competitions are divided into skill level-based divisions ranging from the complete-beginner Walk-Trot level to the Open level, which features advanced riders capable of clearing jumps higher than three-and-a-half feet tall while atop their horse. 

“In our competitions, we do need those beginners, and sometimes they are the hardest people to find,” Pardi said.

Catherine Schafer is one of these beginning riders. The Notre Dame sophomore said she took weekly riding lessons the summer after sixth grade but is otherwise new to horseback riding.

She joined the Equestrian Club in order to get more involved on campus and learn more about the sport that has always intrigued her. 

“It’s definitely a little nerve-wracking at first, but everyone’s super nice and willing to teach you,” she said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot already, and it’s only been a few weeks.”

After being unable to ride or visit the barn last year, she said she is beyond excited to finally be getting back on a horse after so many years.

Claire Reid | The Observer
A club member and physics grad student caring for her horse at the barn after her weekly lesson.

Sophomore Catherine Pardi echoed a similar eagerness to return to normalcy. 

“I’ve been riding for about 12 years now,” she said. “It was so sad. Last year was the longest I’ve ever gone without riding since, like, first grade. It was weird not to ride for 16 weeks straight, so it’s so fun to get to do it again.”

Catherine Pardi said she has enjoyed getting to know the barn and her lesson group. She said she looks forward to competing with the Equestrian Club for the first time at their next show on Nov. 6 at Iowa State.

During the 2019-2020 competition season, the club boasted impressive performances. In IHSA, each school competes within a certain region, and each region is within a zone. The winning team in each region moves on to the Zones show where they have a chance to qualify for Nationals.

For eight straight years, the Notre Dame Equestrian Club’s biggest rival, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Equestrian Team, earned the title of Zone 7 Region 4 Champions. But in February 2020, Notre Dame broke Wisconsin’s winning streak after scoring the most points in back-to-back days of competition at a weekend-long show in Platteville, Wisconsin. This qualified the club to compete in the Zone 7 Zones show in Texas that March, but unfortunately, the show was canceled due to the pandemic.

In the 2020-2021 academic year, not a single IHSA show took place. Like Notre Dame, collegiate teams and clubs across the country were negatively impacted by this and other COVID restrictions.

“Three schools no longer have a program at all. Things in our region are not looking good in terms of who’s even going to be able to host a show,” Pardi said.

For this reason, the Equestrian Club is only participating in two shows this semester. The club’s goals for the competition look very different than they did in early 2020. This year, Pardi said, their coach is not concerned with winning titles but rather with building a strong, cohesive team for the future.

“Our main goal… is really just to create a team environment where we know everyone, and we can get everyone familiar with the rules of IHSA,” Pardi said.

“We have about three groups of people we need to integrate,” she added. “The entire sophomore class hasn’t competed and neither has the freshman class, obviously, but also the juniors because they were freshmen the last time we competed. We don’t take that many freshmen to our shows because you can only bring a limited amount of people, so only two have competed consistently.”

Despite this necessary change in their approach towards competing and all the adversity the Equestrian Club has faced over the past year and a half, the club’s public relations officer, Shoemake, sums up the general sentiment among members this year.

“I’m just so excited that our team is able to practice, and we’re able to go back to the barn again,” she said. “It is such a blessing to be on this team. When you’re at the barn, all of your worries go away.”

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