IHSA Nationals 2024: A Student Athlete’s Inside View

University of Delaware's Ella Cooper provides an inside look at what it's like to compete at IHSA Nationals.

By Ella Cooper

My name is Ella Cooper. I’m from Hockessin, Delaware, and am a sophomore studying pre-veterinary medicine at the University of Delaware. I recently competed at Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Nationals 2024 in the Team Introductory Class with the university’s equestrian club.

When I first joined the University of Delaware Equestrian Club, I didn’t even know what a diagonal was, let alone a hunter. I’ve faced many obstacles since then, but each one has led to improvement and growth. Despite struggling in the beginning, I refused to get frustrated and give up. Instead, I devoted more effort to understanding the foundational skills of riding.

University of Delaware sophomore Ella Cooper dishes on her experience at IHSA Nationals 2024 at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina. © Andrew Ryback

To overcome many of these obstacles, I took time outside of my lessons to research, learn and observe others doing what I couldn’t at first. Between the advice of my coach Whitney Carmouche and listening to her feedback on my teammates’ riding, I quickly learned what good form should look and feel like. 

Recently, I was honored to compete in the IHSA Nationals at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina.

Rough Start 

Our journey getting to the competition in North Carolina was incredibly hectic. We witnessed a huge fire at the airport and ended up rushing through the terminal for our flight, only to discover we were at the wrong terminal. Once again, we had to sprint across the airport. We barely made our flight just before the staff was about to close the doors. Then, during our layover, we somehow missed the boarding announcement and nearly missed our second flight.

After finally arriving, we attempted to pick up the van we’d reserved but ended up with two cars instead. Adding to the chaos, the automatic trunk of one car didn’t close properly, resulting in all our suitcases tumbling out as we drove off—much to the rental car staff’s amusement.

As if that wasn’t enough, a vehicle traveling at 60 mph then rear-ended our other car. Following the accident, an alarm warned that the airbags needed maintenance. Apparently, they should have deployed but didn’t. Fortunately, no one suffered severe injuries, but there were some sore necks going into the competition.

Tryon, At Last

Cooper celebrates her 10th-place finish in the Team Introductory Class at her first IHSA Nationals with her coach Whitney Carmouche. Courtesy, Maggie Lawrence

On Thursday, after our harrowing trip getting there, we headed to the Tryon International Equestrian Center. There we had the opportunity to watch other riders school the horses before the competition started on Friday. I paid careful attention to the horses that might be used for my class and noted any quirks they might have. I also analyzed the arena to try and find good lines and determine where the judges might be looking and if there were any places my horse or I might get distracted.

Whenever I got a chance, I also watched the more advanced riders in their flat classes to get a better idea about spatial awareness, positions, and speed. Overall, I enjoyed observing and analyzing so many riders. I’ve always learned well from simply watching others and visualizing myself riding. Nevertheless, watching the other classes made me even more eager for my turn to ride. 

On Friday, our team helped set up the auction during the competition. Many items were being auctioned with very few display tables, so we had to find a way to organize everything nicely with limited space. I like to organize, so I enjoyed setting the displays up and making them look pretty. This was also a great way to distract myself from my nerves. 

Helmet Woes

On Saturday, the day of my competition, I faced yet another dilemma. The helmet I was supposed to borrow from my teammate was too loose. We raced over to a vendor to see if they happened to have a thicker liner I could borrow. Even with their thickest size, the helmet was unfortunately still too big for me. The lady who was helping fit me said wearing a helmet that loose would be the same as not wearing one at all.

I brought my schooling helmet with me, but it didn’t fulfill the show’s helmet requirements. Especially at the sitting trot, my helmet’s overly long chin straps would flick me in the face and interrupt my concentration.

Plan C was to find scissors and a lighter to cut off and singe the ends of my chin straps—not the best idea. Fortunately, a rider from Centenary University was kind enough to lend me her helmet, and I will be eternally grateful for her generosity. 

Drawing My Mount

Finally, it was time to draw my horse. This is arguably one the most nerve-wracking parts of ISHA competition. The main drawing table at the Tryon Equestrian Center has a miniature carousel with unique wooden horses all along it. Another table holds different colored carousel ornaments. To draw, riders pick a horse from the carousel and place it next to a carousel ornament on the second table. Then, the staff determines the horses we picked and records our draw. 

As always, they organized the riders from tallest to shortest at the draw. I ended up in the middle, so I assumed I would have a moment to process what I wanted to do. But instead of starting from tallest or shortest, the drawing team decided to start in the middle—with me. I was shocked, but I also got exactly what I wanted. When I saw the carousel, the sparkly hot pink horse immediately stood out. So, I picked it up and placed it next to a blue carousel ornament.

I ended up drawing a horse named Fallon from Emory and Henry Colleges. He is a 16-hand gray gelding, characterized as lazy on the horse description list. However, he was the opposite of lazy when I rode him. I’ve always preferred a more forward horse, so I was happy I drew a mount with more go than woe. While we were in the holding arena, Fallon was a little anxious and didn’t want to stand still, so his handler had us pace until it was time to go into the main arena. 

Bittersweet Celebration

Cooper pals around with her fellow University of Delaware Equestrian Club teammates Anna Birney (middle) and Micaela Rogers (right). Courtesy, Ella Cooper

The Team Introductory Class that I was competing in is basically a foundational course to help new riders learn the basics. During shows, it’s similar to a walk-trot flat class. Judges can ask us to do a rising or sitting trot; hold our two-point position at the walk or trot; perform a figure eight at the trot; change directions; and halt.

As my class walked into the arena, I remember thinking, it’s finally here. I had eagerly awaited the moment when I could finally compete. I kept thinking about the hours, days and weeks I’d spent thinking about this moment. Then, it was over in minutes, and I ended up placing 10th in the class. It was all so bittersweet. I was happy that I finally got to compete, but also sad it was over for the year. 

Later than evening, we all participated in the Parade of Teams. During the parade, every team competing at Nationals dresses in their show clothes and walks around the outdoor arena holding up their school’s banner. It was an incredible experience.

Just before the parade we enjoyed watching grand prix show jumping. Having never witnessed a grand prix firsthand, the experience of marching around the arena with jumps towering over me was truly amazing. Watching the jumpers compete in the grand prix was even more remarkable. I’ve seen videos of them before, but it felt completely different to witness in person. Every time I watched them jump and lag in the air, my heart would skip a beat. 

My Inspiration

A year and a half ago, I decided to join the University of Delaware’s Club Equestrian Team without any riding experience. This ended up being one of the best decisions of my life. But none of this would have been possible without a dear friend’s advice.

I’ve always been interested in horses, but I never had the opportunity to gain experience with them. When I told my friend about my interest, she strongly encouraged me to apply for a job at the Carousel Park and Equestrian Center in Wilmington, Delaware. That’s where I heard about the University of Delaware’s Club Equestrian Team. 

I initially had planned to attend a community college after high school, but I changed my mind after that same friend passed away in December 2021. After she died, I was no longer able to envision my future. Desperate to have some control over my life, I decided to apply to the University of Delaware.

Not long after I got my acceptance letter, I knew I wanted to join the equestrian team. And being part of the team was one of the only things that kept me going during that difficult time. I am thankful for my team, my coach and our horses. I wouldn’t have been able to compete at IHSA Nationals without them.

For more information on IHSA and Nationals 2024, click here.

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