Behind the Scenes of Riding at IHSA Nationals

Wonder what it's like to ride at the IHSA Nationals? Mount Holyoke College senior Emily Holowczak shares her experience at the prestigious collegiate competition and gives us the inside scoop on all the action.
Author Emily Holowczak, a senior at Mount Holyoke College, was delighted to partner with Aoki, a flashy gelding provided by Pembroke Pointe Show Stables, for the Individual Intermediate Equitation on the Flat. Courtesy, Emily Holowczak

 Emily Holowczak, a senior at Mount Holyoke College and member of the school’s riding team, gives us an insider’s report on all the action at this year’s IHSA Nationals. 

Walking into the arena at IHSA Nationals is a moment I will never forget. The lights were bright, the crowd hushed and for a precious few moments it was just me and the horse. There’s nothing quite like having the large arena stretched out before you, a site where all of the countless hours of hard work and preparation are put to the test.

Competition kicked off early on Thursday morning with Individual Open Equitation Over Fences. Spirits and nerves were high as riders were eager to perform. After several lovely rounds and a callback for additional testing, Michael Andrade of Centenary University took home the first championship award. Individual Intermediate Over Fences followed, where Mount Holyoke (MHC) had one of their horses competing. We brought two horses to the Nationals named Marty and Giovanni, the latter being used for the class. While MHC didn’t have any riders competing in the class, we were excited to see Giovanni make his Nationals debut. The chestnut gelding was ridden by Jennifer DePietro of Johnson & Wales University, where she put in a beautiful round to win the class. Giovanni had his moment in the spotlight, as DePietro had pictures taken with him in the winner’s circle. Individual Novice Over Fences was next, leading up to the first Collegiate Cup class of the day for the team riders. Sheridan Beard clinched the top honors, putting Skidmore on the board and in the lead, a position they would maintain throughout the competition. Our own MHC rider had a beautiful ride to finish with an honorable mention. After a quick arena drag, my class was next in Individual Intermediate Equitation on the Flat.

I drew a horse named Aoki provided by Pembroke Pointe Show Stables. The large gelding had distinct markings and I smiled knowing that I could stand out with him. I had few moments to greet him, and was soon ready to mount up and head to the arena. After a final boot polish and some encouraging words from my teammates, all the flat riders lined up, ready to go. Suddenly, everything seemed to progress in slow motion. With butterflies aflutter, I took a few moments to breathe deeply as I approached the in-gate. I could feel the goosebumps fly up my arms as I walked through the entrance and glanced around the arena. This was it!

Author Emily Holowczak takes a deep breath as she prepares to enter her class with Aoki. Courtesy, Emily Holowczak

The class was soon called to order, and I realized it was going to be a challenge to navigate the ring and get noticed. With sixteen riders all vying for a spot alone on the rail, the arena that once looked so large suddenly felt very small. Luckily, I saw an open spot on the opposite side and cut across the arena. I remember looking to the stands to see my team and parents watching with excitement, and a wide grin spread across my face. In that moment, I felt confident.

The class seemed to fly by, and before I knew it, we were lining up in front of the judges. No additional testing was required, so I gave Aoki a pat and hopped off. All sixteen of us lined up for pinning and volunteers entered with ribbons and prizes. I felt great about my ride, but also knew I was amongst the best riders in the country and that making it to the top ten would be difficult. Six honorable mentions were called first, and my number was not included. A sigh of relief escaped my lips as I learned I had made the top ten, which was my ultimate goal. I finished in ninth place!

Several flat classes followed throughout the day, and MHC riders competed in both the Collegiate Cup Novice Flat and Collegiate Cup Intermediate Flat. My teammates had lovely rides to finish with honorable mentions. With the first day completed, we packed up our belongings and headed back to the hotel.

My alarm went off very early Friday morning and we were soon back at the showgrounds. The day began with Collegiate Cup Intermediate Over Fences. My teammate Sara Hearn was riding for MHC, and we all headed to the draw table with her. Sara drew a horse named Clay, provided by Skidmore College. “I have been so obsessed with this horse!” Sara exclaimed. She had her eye on the fancy bay from the first day of Nationals and was hoping to draw him. Sara put in a stunning round to win first place for Mount Holyoke! We now had seven points on the board.

Next up was the Cacchione Cup Over Fences phase, which saw my teammate Mollie Kowalchik compete. Mollie’s round was absolutely stunning, earning her a score of 87, which ended up being the highest score of the Nationals competition! Mollie also had a beautiful flat phase, and ended the day in first place leading into testing on Saturday. Rounding out the day for MHC was Collegiate Cup Walk-Trot and Collegiate Cup Walk-Trot-Canter, in which our riders posted an honorable mention and an eighth-place finish, respectively.

Saturday marked the last day of the hunt seat competition. My teammate Maddy Skrak was up first for the Collegiate Cup Open Over Fences class. After a stunning ride, Maddy was called back for additional testing. As results were called, she took fourth in the class, adding more points for MHC. Next was the last phase of the Cacchione Cup class. The top ten riders were called back, and Mollie was last to go in the order for jumping. The complicated test course was rather long and featured two trot fences. Mollie put in a great ride aboard a large grey horse. After two days, pinning for the most prestigious class in the IHSA got underway. Mollie clinched Reserve Champion, while top honors went to Makayla Benjamin of Sweet Briar College. Later, the last Collegiate Cup class saw our MHC rider post an eighth-place finish, and we earned seventh place overall, tied with Virginia Tech in the Collegiate Cup competition. Skidmore College, Savannah College of Art and Design and Stanford University were the top three teams, respectively.

Ending my IHSA career at Nationals was certainly a highlight of my collegiate riding career. I was honored to compete as an individual as well as support my teammates in the Collegiate Cup and Cacchione Cup. So many memories have been molded by the IHSA, and I feel extremely lucky to have been a part of it for my entire time at college. As a “catch rider” and working student for the majority of my riding career, I never dreamed I could make it to a national competition. IHSA gave me the keys to unlock new possibilities, and I am happy I could share my experience at Nationals with Practical Horseman!

U.S. Jumping Team Captures 6th in Nations Cup La Baule CSIO5*
U.S. Olympic Eventing Team Announced for Paris 2024
Young Riders Pay It Forward at Devon
Arena Eventing Rocks the House at Devon With Martin Win