Inside the 2011 IHSA Nationals

Kaitlyn Christie of the University of Victoria and Sarah Bernhoft of the University of Wisconsin-Madison share their experiences from the 2011 IHSA National Finals.

Editor’s note: Kaitlyn Christie of the University of Victoria and Sarah Bernhoft of the University of Wisconsin-Madison volunteered to send reports of their experiences at the IHSA Nationals, May 5-8, 2011, at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.


About the Correspondents

My name is Kaitlyn Christie, and I am a 23-year-old pre-veterinary student at the University of Victoria, Canada. I have been a member of UVIC’s equestrian team for the past two years out of its five year history. Being on the equestrian team has been my first experience competing at horse shows, but hopefully it won’t be my last! Our team does not have a coach, and we do not train together, so I do not ride on a regular basis. I have ridden casually since I was 10 years old, but before joining the team I had not ridden in four years. Since I am so new to showing, I am competing in the Individual Walk-Trot Class (Hunt Seat). I was the only member of our small team to qualify for the Zone 8 Championships in California, and am the first person from UVIC to qualify for Nationals. It is a childhood dream of mine to travel to Kentucky (where horses grow on trees?!), so I could not be more excited about this opportunity, and I am happy to bring all of you along on this adventure!


Hi everyone! My name is Sarah Bernhoft, and I am very excited to share my experience at IHSA Nationals with everyone back at home. I am the captain of the?University of Wisconsin-Madison Equestrian Team, and I’ll be representing the Badgers in Team Intermediate Fences. This is the first time I’ve been to Nationals personally, but my school has competed six times in the last eight years, and we’ve come out in the top 10 teams four of those times. I have a lot to live up to! This is my fourth and final year competing as an undergrad, and riding at Nationals is an awesome way to finish my collegiate riding career.


I started riding when I was 9, beginning lessons at Joe and Kathy Patton’s (Beezie Madden’s parents) Apple Ridge Stables in Mequon, Wisconsin. I’ve always wanted to take my riding somewhere serious, but haven’t had the funds. A generous trainer and awesome barn family helped me lease and compete a Children’s/Adult jumper on the A circuit when I was 17, and when I went off to college, IHSA proved to be my ticket to compete on a national level against some of the best amateur riders in the country. I’ve ridden in Tournament of Champions series horse shows and had the honor of being chosen to represent my school at Zone Finals this year, and now at Nationals. Wisconsin Equestrian is a team of 40 girls and is completely student-run. We ride at the UW Hoofer Riding Club facilities just outside of Madison. We don’t receive funding or grants from our university, so not many people come to Wisconsin specifically to ride. However, Wisconsin does have a highly ranked vet school, and most girls on the team are on the pre-vet track. I am one of the few liberal arts students on the team and will be graduating in two weeks with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.

I’m writing this blog entry from the UW fleet van we rented to drive to Kentucky. My team is traveling early to watch warmups tomorrow. Since only two of us have ridden at Nationals before, our coach, Mark Aplin, wants us to get a feel for the horses and the facilities before we have to compete. For now, I’m going to spend the remaining five hours we have left in our drive on a final paper that is due on Friday by email, so we will see what tomorrow brings.

May 3

Kaitlyn: After traveling for the last 18 hours with only four hours of sleep last night and three hours’ time difference, I am finally in Kentucky! We (my mom and I) arrived at the Bluegrass Airport this evening via the very efficient route of flying Victoria to Seattle, Seattle to Chicago and Chicago to Lexington. Let me tell you, it is not an easy task getting off my island in the Pacific Ocean and making it all the way to the lush green pastures of Kentucky. That said, I am so excited to finally be here! I have already fallen head over heels in love with this place, and I have only been here for four hours. I could be in trouble: By the end of the week I may be too smitten to leave (at least without a horse in hand). I hate to say it, but for once I am actually glad something lived up to its stereotype! The area around Lexington is exactly the horse-lover’s dreamland I had been promised!

Kaitlyn plays tourist at the Bluegrass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky.

I am terribly excited for the next few days of horse craziness, although every time I remember the reason I came to Kentucky (to compete in IHSA Nationals at the Kentucky Horse Park), I get a tad panicky. I desperately wish my team had been able to come along for support; I am going to miss their guidance and companionship here. This will be by far the biggest horse show I have ever been to; the previous leader was the Zone Championships in California in April, with the only other show I have been to this season last November in Oregon. Right now I am really wishing I had more opportunity to practice. I have to confess, I have only ridden once since Zones, and I haven’t had a lesson in almost two years! So when I imagine the announcer saying “Riders, you are now being judged,” my stomach does some intense somersaults. I console myself with the thought the other riders are probably just as nervous as me!

I will let you know how it goes, and I look forward to taking you all along as I explore the horse capital of the world (and the surrounding Bluegrass Region)!

May 4

Sarah Bernhoft: Today started bright and early with a trip to Starbucks before going over to the Horse Park to watch warmups. After wandering around the Alltech Arena trying to find an unlocked door, we found our way in and took a seat in the stands. The Horse Park is beautiful, and the grounds are immaculately manicured. The donated horses are obviously well cared for and well trained. With the exception of a few who were a bit frightened of the bright lights and colorful banners lining the arena, they went around like being at the Kentucky Horse Park is so yesterday, demonstrating their trot jumps, counter-canters and flashy extended trots. My coach recognized a few well-liked horses from past Nationals, like Sampson and Clifford. I don’t show until Friday, but I can’t wait to see which horse I draw. Schooling went off without a hitch and even ended up finishing an hour early, which is a first in IHSA history according to Eddie Federwisch, who was announcing the horses as they entered the arena.

Everyone was excited at check in to see the awesome backpacks provided by the USHJA for each exhibitor. My favorite items were the IHSA Nationals socks from Sox Trot, and the gift certificate from Der Dau. The free copies of Practical Horseman also provided a much-needed diversion from homework. The silent auction has some pretty cool items as well, including an abstract Chinese calligraphy painting of a horse and rider jumping, which I have my eye on.

Tomorrow will be another early morning, and a long day. We have a rider in almost every class tomorrow, starting out with our Individual Intermediate Fences qualifier, Joyce Williams, and ending with our Team Walk/Trot rider, Melissa Eischens. We’re off to dinner now and an early bed time. I’ll write again tomorrow!

Kaitlyn Christie: First full day in Kentucky = fantastic! We had another early start, waking up at 4:30 a.m. local time (which is really 1:30 a.m. to our confused bodies) to attend Dawn at the Downs in Louisville. It was definitely worth the sleep deprivation though! We had a delicious buffet breakfast up in Millionaires Row at Churchill Downs while watching some of the Derby and Oaks Competitors train. I even tried “grits,” which is a dish we do not have at home, but unfortunately I was not fan. It was my first time at a racetrack, and when I stepped outside I was blown away by the sound of the horses galloping down the track. It was thunderous but at the same time looked absolutely effortless. I am impressed by Churchill Downs and cannot wait to experience the Kentucky Derby in a few days! We of course bought some Derby T-shirts, and tried on some fun “fascinators,” the new trend of wearing large flowers and bows on a headband or clip instead of a hat. They are really cute, but I think people might stare if I wore one at home.

After the track our rock-star-of-a-GPS expertly directed us to Dee’s, where we had preordered our custom designed Derby hats. I am slightly puzzled as to how the hats are going to accompany us home on the plane (they are HUGE!). In the afternoon we explored downtown Louisville, which is right beside the currently overflowing Ohio River. There are still roads completely submerged, even though we could see that the water line had receded from a few days ago. Coming from Canada, we were sadly mistaken it would be warmer down south, but today we were proven wrong by the cold winds! I am regretting not bringing a warmer wardrobe, but at least it didn’t rain. The highlight of my day was meeting up with one of my good friends whom I met on a University exchange to Maastricht (in the Netherlands). We had not seen each other in three years, so the reunion was awfully exciting, but sadly much too short.

May 5

Sarah: Today was a long but overall pretty successful day. The drive up to the Alltech Arena at 6 a.m. was slightly surreal: Mist shrouded the ground as the shapes of grazing horses dotted the rolling pastures. You can’t help but be enchanted by this place, and even though riding at such a competitive venue can be stressful, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now. Our Individual Intermediate Fences rider Joyce Williams started off 2011 IHSA Nationals as the first ride of the show. She was just out of the ribbons with an 11th place, but she was very proud of her round, as were the rest of us. Things only got better from there with a 6th place in Individual Novice Fences for Michelle Piccione and a 9th in Team Novice Fences for Amy Reynolds. The course was beautifully designed and fun to ride, according to our riders, and I can’t wait to see what we have in store for us tomorrow.

Since this is my first Nationals competition, I’ve so far managed to get so nervous for each of my teammates that I get an adrenaline rush as?if I were the one in the ring. With each successful ride, however, I’m proud to realize that we belong here, and all of our hard work has most definitely paid off. As far as the other teams here at Nationals, everyone has stepped up the the plate. Each?class has been extremely competitive with very few outliers, and with the first day of competition over, the bar has been set pretty high for the following days.

At the end of the day, we had another cause?for celebration:?my assistant captain and?Team Intermediate Flat rider Shannon Roska put Wisconsin Equestrian on the board with a 5th place finish in her class. Shannon was happy that she got the “pretty ribbon” and a pair of Oster clippers (which I am pretty jealous of), and once she changed out of her show clothes, we meandered over to the USHJA banquet for a great barbecue and some generously donated door prizes. And now, after a late night of homework and ironing my show clothes, I am off to bed to get some sleep before my ride in the second class of the day tomorrow.

Kaitlyn: The horse show started today! Unfortunately for all of you who want to read about it, I was not there! This makes me nervous, what if I missed something important? However since I am the only one from the University of Victoria here, it didn’t make much sense to go when I don’t have a team to support and there are so many other things I would like to see while we are in Kentucky.


It was beautiful sunny weather all of today (yay!), so my mom and I spent our morning at the most magnificent and awe-inspiring stables I have ever seen. We attended an open house at Three Chimneys Farm and toured the breeding facilities while meeting their stallions, such as Big Brown (who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown). Afterward we had lunch at a great vegetarian-friendly restaurant called Alfalfa and checked out downtown Lexington. Then instead of heading to the horse show, we decided to play hooky and go to the Wild Turkey Bourbon Distillery. It was neat to see their new distillery (only five months old!), but I discovered I do NOT like bourbon. We also managed to fit in quite a bit of shopping between tours, as we got a tad overexcited about all the stores here that we do not have in Canada. We may have gotten a little bit carried away, but fortunately we are still under the limit Canadian Customs allows us to bring back!


Tomorrow I compete at the Kentucky Horse Park, and I am so scared! Seriously, I am trying not to think about it. Luckily there are many fun distractions around Lexington that kept me occupied today. My mom and I have been enjoying the Southern culture here, especially how chivalrous the men are. I feel like such a lady! I’m not used to having doors opened for me and always exiting/entering rooms first, it’s kind of fun (men at home, you’d better be taking notes! Yes, I mean you, Simon!). Anyway, I have blabbered enough for one day. Wish me luck in the big competition tomorrow!

May 6

Kaitlyn: I bet you all have been waiting on the edge of your seats to hear about the show today! My mom and I spent the entire day at the Kentucky Horse Park, but I could happily spend the rest of the year there. My class wasn’t until late in the afternoon, so we had lots of time to explore the Park and watch other classes. My favorite class was definitely the open reining. It was impressive to watch and looked like a lot of fun with those sliding stops! Maybe I will take up reining next year. That’s not TOO big of a jump from walk-trot, is it?

Everyone was really surprised I didn’t have a coach with me, and it became an issue when I went to register for my class, since I needed a coach to sign the waiver and be responsible for requesting a reride if necessary. Lucky for me, my region president Dawn Ross from Oregon State University stepped up as my substitute coach. It was really nice to see a familiar face, and I appreciated her looking out for me. I was also excited to meet up with the other Canadian team from the University of Guelph in Ontario. This show is the first time a team from Western and Eastern Canada have attended Nationals together.

The Alltech Arena where the show is being held is a beautiful indoor arena built in 2009 that seats 5,300 people! That is a lot bigger than the little riding rings I am used to. Fortunately I drew a fantastic retired racehorse named Rascal, and he was completely nonplussed about all the noise and activity going on in the arena. I never would have guessed he used to race, as he was the one calming me down with his relaxed manner. It was extremely intimidating to have 16 riders competing in my class, even with such well-behaved horses. However, it went smoothly, and I even managed to have fun! I ended up placing 7th (I was just aiming to not fall off!), so I won a saddle pad and the biggest ribbon I have ever seen. I am pretty excited about it. It was funny though: I was posing for a picture with IHSA President Bob Cacchione, and he told me, “You know, the class is over, you can stop shaking now!” I hadn’t even noticed until he pointed it out. After all that stress I was starving, so for dinner we attended the exhibitors’ party hosted by the United States Equestrian Federation, where I met so many nice people involved with the IHSA. All in all, it was an amazing show experience!

Sarah: Today was another long, yet successful day. We cheered on former fellow Zone 9 Region 3 member and alumni rider Amy Olson in her fences class in the morning as she finished with a 10th place. I was the second class of the day and the second person to go in my class. The draw table is really adorable: It’s rubber ducks floating around a miniature lazy river with a big sparkly IHSA Nationals sign in the middle. Of course, we got to keep the ducks. The horse I drew was named Airborne, and he was donated by the University of Kentucky. I absolutely loved him, and if Kentucky doesn’t watch out, he may end up coming home with me. I didn’t have a perfect round and ended up with an Honorable Mention, but it felt good to ride in this competition with such a willing partner who tried very hard to make up for my mistakes even though he didn’t know me.?I really can’t say it enough: The horses at this show are saints. They work all day from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., getting both good and not-so-good rides, and they still enter the ring each time with a great attitude and work ethic, even if they are physically exhausted by the end of the day.


So was I nervous? Of course! I’ve been showing now for more than 10 years, and I’m nervous every time I walk into the arena, regardless of how big of a deal the show is. However, I’ve come to realize that nerves aren’t always a bad thing, and you just have to accept them as part of the excitement of competing. My pre-show internal pep talk went along these lines: “OMG I’m starting to get really nervous. But I know my course, I have a good draw and I know I can do this.”

After my ride, we had a several-hour break before our last two rides of the day. We decided to take some time to explore the grounds and get some fresh air since many of us have never been to the Kentucky Horse Park before. I found out that our Open Flat rider is actually part monkey: She managed to climb up onto several of the cross-country jumps that the rest of us painfully clambered up on. After a two-hour walk in the Park and a brief sunning on the table top jump, we headed back to the competition for Team Walk/Trot and Team Walk/Trot/Canter. I incorrectly reported earlier that Melissa Eischens showed for us on Thursday. Bad captain. She showed today and took home a 10th after a great ride. The most excitement of the day came for Jennifer Peotter in Team Walk/Trot/Canter. After an absolutely beautiful ride, she took 4th place, putting Wisconsin Equestrian in 10th in the team standings.

Sarah with coach Mark Aplin

Tomorrow we have Team Open Fences and Flat. It’s the last day of hunt seat showing, and as tired as I am right now, I’m not ready to go home. Thanks for following, and I’ll write again tomorrow!

May 7

Sarah: Today is our final day in Kentucky. By now, most of the Western teams have gotten here, so the Alltech Arena is quite a bit busier than it was earlier. It’s really cool to see all of the different teams sporting their schools’ colors with the words “equestrian team” on them. I worked all throughout high school to get good grades and keep riding six days a week, while participating in extracurriculars at my school to make my application look better. I didn’t tell anyone that I rode horses because the conception of many people is that it’s not a real sport. It’s nice to see that equestrian sports are finally getting recognition, and the designation “student athlete” is also being given to equestrians. During the ceremonies today, several scholarships were given out in the name of the IHSA, and I can only hope that the number and variety of these will continue to increase.

Course set for the IHSA Nationals in the Alltech Arena

On another note, my team took 9th overall! All of us, including my coach, were very impressed with the general quality of riding at this year’s Nationals. There were only a few teams that didn’t get any points at all, and there were several ties, including a tie for Reserve Champion. The Team Open Flat class was probably the most competitive class of the entire horse show and was the only flat class that the judges tested. After counter-cantering without stirrups, they were finally able to find clear placings. Even the Walk/Trot earlier was extremely competitive. My coach remarked to me as the class walked in, “Those girls don’t look like Walk/Trot riders. …”

And now ends my collegiate riding career. I’m happy to go out on a good note, and I’m excited to see where my team will end up over the next few years. We’re constantly growing and finding new opportunities so we can be better than the year before, and it’s exciting enough for me to see how far we’ve come in the four short year’s I’ve been a member.

Sarah Bernhoft poses with the statue of Bruce Davidson at the Kentucky Horse Park.

As for tonight, it’s my coach’s birthday, so we’re going out. Happy birthday, Mark! We’re planning on watching the Kentucky Derby and celebrating a successful season with some Caribbean food at Atomic Cafe in downtown Lexington. Thanks to everyone who read my blog, and I wish all teams a great season in the fall!

Kaitlyn: I have decided I am going to become a jockey! I know yesterday I wanted to do reining, but after watching the races at Churchill Downs today, I think I’m much more suited as a jockey. Being an adrenaline junkie, I think flying down the track perched precariously on the back of 1,500 pounds of solid muscle at breakneck speeds surrounded by 19 others doing the exact same thing?is the perfect fit.

I guess I had better start from the beginning of the story. My mom and I headed off to Churchill Downs in the morning with our new fancy hats and pretty dresses. The track was a sight to behold; everywhere you looked was a sea of beautiful hats and matching outfits. We had seats in the grandstands, which came with access to the Bacardi Infield Club where there was a buffet and seating under covered tents. This came in handy when it poured rain in the middle of the day! We both had never been to the races before, so we decided to try our hand at betting. It is actually much more complicated than you would think; there are just so many different kinds of bets you can place. So we picked out some nice horses (mostly by their pretty names) and actually came out a few dollars richer earlier in the day. However for the Derby we had actually researched the horses, so we thought we were making a more educated wager. Apparently we should have stuck to the “pretty names” system, since our luck did not hold out. The Derby definitely lived up to all the excitement though. I staked out a vantage point right on the rail in the backstretch (amazing, right?), and when the band played “My Old Kentucky Home,” I swelled with pride even though I’m not from Kentucky! The Derby was without question the most exciting two minutes of sport I have ever seen. Combining horse racing with a fashion show, celebrity spotting, mint juleps and Derby pie just made the experience that much more enjoyable. I am still a little wound up from the adrenaline of the day, I wish it weren’t over!

Kaitlyn dons her fancy hat and sundress for the Kentucky Derby.

May 8

Kaitlyn: Happy Mother’s Day! Personally, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day than with my mom in the gorgeous Bluegrass Region of Kentucky. After our time at the races and the horse show, we were pretty tired so we slept in for the first time this trip! For the rest of the day we went on a scenic drive by the Kentucky Palisades (river rock formations), checked out Shaker Village (where we had a wonderful Mother’s Day lunch) and Old Fort Harrod State Park (the first settlement in Kentucky). It was so nice to have a relaxing day with no time constraints. Unfortunately today is our last day here, and I am definitely sad to be going home tomorrow. This trip has gone by much too fast! It is going to be another long day, flying from Lexington to Texas, then Texas to Seattle, and finally Seattle to Victoria. I am tempted to buy a horse and ride home, but that would probably take six months. If anyone is looking for a place to go on a first-class horse-themed vacation, I recommend Kentucky! Competing in IHSA Nationals at the Kentucky Horse Park, attending the Kentucky Derby and meeting all the wonderful people of this region are experiences that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I hope you have all enjoyed hearing about my trip; I enjoyed sharing it with you.

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