The NCEA Road

As this Kansas State University equestrienne will attest, horse showing can take a competitor full circle.

By Samantha Etsell
The American Quarter Horse Journal
January 22, 2013

Samantha Etsell and Just Plain Doin It at the 2007 AQHYA World Show

Samantha Etsell pilots Just Plain Doin It to a fifth-place finish in working cow horse at the 2007 Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show in Fort Worth, Texas. (Journal photo)

When I was 17, I spent a lot of my time trying to decide what to do with the next step of my life.

Thanks to AQHYA, I had a great base in not only showing horses, but also leadership. As a delegate at the Bank of America Youth Excellence Seminar I had the opportunity to meet people from across the country, and that same prospect presented itself when I competed at the 2007 Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show. Not only that, I was able to connect with fellow horsemen and -women in my state, becoming the Washington State Quarter Horse Youth Association president.

While I was still in high school, a few of the older youth that I showed against had taken the next step in their riding careers and started competing in Varsity Equestrian, now known as the National Collegiate Equestrian Association. I knew the only way I could continue to ride at a competitive level while being enrolled in college was to try to get on a team, as well.

By March of my senior year in high school, I had committed to the Kansas State University women’s equestrian team; I haven’t looked back.

Being a cow-horse kid from Washington, coming to a team where I would do strictly reining in Kansas was a bit of a change. The biggest factor in helping me get through the changes was my teammates. I came into a team that was stacked with very talented seniors. Not only did they make sure I was in my place, they helped me become a better rider, always helping me when my coach wasn’t able.

They also taught me a big thing that team sports teach you: humility. You aren’t guaranteed a spot on the show roster. It’s as simple as that. If you aren’t riding your best, Coach isn’t going to show you, and you have to be OK with that.  

I have never had one regret about choosing this college experience over a traditional one. It’s hard work and it’s definitely not for everyone, but I have really enjoyed this program and all its benefits. I have a fantastic support system, not only for athletics, but also academically. Kansas State takes the word “student-athlete” very literally; we are always a student before an athlete.

Along with academic support, the team has allowed me to travel across the country and meet new people and ride a variety of horses. You never know what you’re going to get when competing at a new school for the first time.

That said, riding a different horse in competition is definitely the biggest thrill in this sport. The draw is always a surprise, no matter how many guesses we try to make. Some days you’re going to draw a horse that is ol’ faithful and others you are just going to have to pull out everything in your bag of tricks just to get it to lope off. Some will run you down the pen and others you have to kick all the way down there. It takes a very versatile and adjustable rider. Did I mention you only get four minutes to warm the horse up before you go show it, five if you’re a reiner?

Being on a team is something that is very different for a good portion of the girls who join an equestrian team, and I was no exception. Honestly, you really have to buy into the program. Your teammates become your best friends and you learn to ask for help. You have to work with your teammates to become a cohesive unit. Communication, working side-by-side and winning or losing together becomes an everyday part of life with the team.

I’ve personally learned to look for help from everyone, not exclusively the girls in your event. I’ve become a much quieter and prettier rider by getting help from my horsemanship teammates. We all have diverse backgrounds and can help each other in some way. You just have to be willing to try something new.

Another thing that has really improved for me since being on the team is my leadership skills, which were already instilled before I got to college, but only continue to enhance as the years go by. I’ve been fortunate enough to be voted captain for the past two seasons, and it’s something that AQHYA prepared me for. My leadership position in WSQHYA taught me organizational and planning skills that have also been put to use here on the team. The team has really helped increase my communication with my peers and my coaches, as well.

In the last four years, my team has had extraordinary success for one key reason: we work together. We’ve tallied two western reserve national championships so far, with another shot at the championship title in just a few months.

Before then, we have a tough schedule. We hit the road to Fresno State University in a few weeks, then turn around and go to Texas. After a short home stint, we head to Oklahoma State University for the Big XII Conference Championships. We’re all very excited to get the semester started and keep up our momentum.

After I wrap up this semester, I have another year here at K-State, where I will finish my degree in animal science and industries as I student-coach for the team. After that, I hope to get a coaching job somewhere in the NCEA.

Looking at it, everything in my life seems to be coming full circle. The people I met through AQHYA opened the doors to collegiate equestrian, which has given me an opportunity to continue riding and do something I love. Without the inspiration of my AQHYA competitors, I would have never ended up where I am today. And now, I have the chance to pass that torch on to the next group of up-and-coming AQHYA competitors.