No horseplay in this sport

Published 8:31 am Friday, July 3, 2009

COURTLAND—According to Carla Francis, a first ride on a horse is unforgettable.

“They can tell you the name of the horse and what they were wearing that day, what the weather was that day,” she said. “They don’t forget that lesson as long as they live. They get bitten by a little bug.”

Francis, who is also an English teacher at Southampton Middle School, has been teaching kids and adults how to ride for the past 17 years.

Although equestrian is an Olympic sport, it is still low key in the Franklin-Southampton area.

“It’s not as big as it is in the Virginia Beach area. Chesapeake and Virginia Beach have some of the best horses and riders in the state and in the country,” Francis said. “Most people around here have little farms and horses in their back yard. It is more of a pet than an investment.”

Equestrian consists of two classes of show jumping and judging of the horses’ walk or canter.

“It’s the horses’ athletic ability. Even though you might be the best rider out there, what we do judges the athleticism of the horse, so finding that right athlete to ride is huge,” Francis said.

That’s where the rapport between horse and rider comes into play. Francis said rapport, or no rapport, can be established right away.

“Having a good rapport with them can be the difference in being successful or not being successful,” she said. “They are all different, but you can usually tell as soon as somebody gets on a horse whether it’s going to work or not. I always tell people you are like an electrical charge. When you pull those reins or when you put your seat in that saddle, that horse can feel it just like that. If you are nervous or wound up or lazy one day, the horse is going to feel that.”

Francis said her students are competing about twice a month at places like River Birch Farm near Franklin, Williamsburg, Lexington and Smithfield. Before the economy sank, competition was every weekend.

Riding can be costly. Besides the initial investment of the horse, riders require as much as $2,000 in equipment, including helmet, saddle and bridle, and several hundred dollars a year in lessons and practice. The cost to ride in a local show can run up to $100 — and much higher for out-of-area shows.

“It adds up and it’s expensive, but it’s one of those things that the initial investment is great, but over a period of time, you get good use out of those things,” Francis said.

One of Francis’ students is 9-year-old Ashlyn Edwards, a student at Capron Elementary School, who started riding two years ago. Edwards has seen success in the field riding her horse Simon.

“I won a lot of first-, second- and third-place ribbons and two reserve championships,” she said.

Mary Barczak, an adult rider who owns Magic, said she got involved with the sport after casually mentioning to a friend that she would like to try it.

“The showing is not my forte only because it appeals more to the younger crowd,” she said. “I more enjoy the ride and the lessons just to become a better rider.”

Francis said training for equestrian is fun for riders, despite the repetition.

“A lot of what we do is repetition. But the beauty is you learn to do it so it is second nature,” Francis said. “You can see it with a kid or an adult when it just clicks. You can see it in their face. That’s a rewarding feeling.”