By Katie Navarra for the Journal
Alex Smith enrolled at St. Andrews University to play baseball. But in February 2018, two close friends, Conner Smith and Dillon Vaughn, recruited him to ride on the schools Intercollegiate Horse Show Association western team. The team’s beginner western horsemanship rider bowed out midyear and they thought Alex would be a perfect fit. Within three months, he went from baseball star to IHSA reserve national champion.
“I red-shirted in baseball and decided to do it,” Alex said. “I was riding every day to prepare and rode three horses a day here at Nationals.”
Ironically, Alex grew up surrounded by horses. His mother has earned world championship titles with her Appaloosas and other family members are successful PRCA contestants. Although Alex has trail ridden a handful of times, he never caught the horse bug until going to college.
“When I called to tell my mom I was riding on the team, she couldn’t believe it,” he said. “She’d been trying to get me to ride since I was 4 years old.”
Transitioning from the ballfield to the show pen was easy, Alex said. Having developed a competitive mental mind set for baseball has helped him control his nerves in the arena.
“I’m really glad I decided to do it,” he said. “It’s been a big confidence boost.”
After Alex celebrated his big finish in the beginner class at the IHSA National Finals at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he cheered for his best friends Conner and Dillon and the rest of their teammates.
“Before every class we tell each other ‘shake ‘n’ bake,’” Alex said. “It’s from ‘Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby.’ It gets us in the mindset and reminds us that we’re here for a reason.”
Their ritual has been unbeatable. Dillon won reserve national champion in individual advanced horsemanship, and Conner was named the AQHA High-Point Western Rider of the year after finishing with the highest horsemanship score of the class and third in reining with a 146.5. Conner wrapped up his senior year by also winning team horsemanship, placing ninth in team reining and fourth in individual open horsemanship.
“It was an honor to ride with such great competitors,” Conner said. “I’ve been fighting to get feel in reining, and I got that here. It was a really great show.”
At the end of classes May 7, the University of Findlay claimed the top western team honors with 28 points. After an unexpected eighth-place finish in the first team event, University of Findlay riders started the weekend with zero points.
The team quickly rebounded with riders sweeping top honors in most of the other classes. By the end of the weekend, the team received the AQHA Team Trophy. This was Spencer Zimmerman’s first year as head coach for the team.
“I am proud of my riders for putting it all out there in the pen and remembering everything we practiced at home. It really showed,” he said.
Long-time Findlay coach, AQHA Professional Horseman Clark Bradley, praised Spencer, who rode for Findlay before taking the reins as head coach this year, and the entire team’s efforts.
“This is great for the whole team,” said Clark. “Some of our riders had very little experience when they started and riding on the IHSA team helped them through their nerves.”
Ohio State University finished second in the team competition, and Middle Tennessee State University tied with Oregon State for third.