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Summer 2002

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Riding high
Equestrians battle the odds at nationals

by Peter MacDonald

     Perhaps it was an omen. The morning after Skidmore’s riding team arrived in Cazenovia, N.Y., for the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association’s national championships, powerful storms ripped down the tent housing the fourteen horses they’d brought.
The Thoroughbreds rally around Coach Cindy Ford (front row, third from left) at this spring’s national championships.
     IHSA director Bob Cacchione found the Skidmore athletes munching donuts and holding horses from Artie to Zorro in the aisles of one of the host barns. “They were sopping wet but smiling,” he recalls. “I applauded them on the spot.”

     Applause is nice, but coach Cynthia Ford and her riders wanted more. After five national hunt-seat team championships in the 1990s, it’s been three years since the Thoroughbreds have been the best in the U.S.—too long for the intensely competitive coach, whose fourteen-year tenure has seen Skidmore finish first in its region every year but one.
     At the final home practice, in Skidmore’s Van Lennep Riding Center, Ford stood, arms crossed, in the middle of the indoor arena to direct her riders. Now and then the patter of rain was punctuated by horses’ snorts. “Think modern dance, Tanya—so smooth from your upper body through your thigh,” Ford said. “He’s bouncy. He is. I know that.…You can take back your stirrups, Megan. Stand up in a half-seat for awhile. Fix all the angles.… Alyssa, do not let her drag on the reins. Be tough.”
     Tough? Just ask Lindsey Phibbs ’02, team MVP, Zone II champion, and 1999 winner of the most prized trophy in college riding, the Cacchione Cup. Like her sister Courtney ’97, a mainstay on two Skidmore national-champion teams, Lindsey arrived in Saratoga Springs as a top young rider on the horse show circuit. But she quickly learned that in intercollegiate competition, you don’t ride your own horse. Names are drawn a half-hour before you show, and you mount the horse for the first time at the gate. The better the horse, the better your chances, though judges are supposed to factor in the quality of your mount. “You don’t have time to fix your horse,” says Courtney, now a professional trainer. “You do the best with what you have.”
     By midmorning on the Friday of nationals, the sun was breaking out. At least that’s how the Thoroughbreds felt after the first two team events. Jovanna Giannassio ’02 won a blue ribbon (seven points) in the intermediate-level over-fences class, and Erina Malarkey ’05 followed with second place (five points) in the novice on-the-flat class.
     Giannassio had watched her horse, Goose, refuse fences in warmups. Waiting, she was freezing, nervous, and battling bad thoughts. “But Goose was perfect,” she told a Chronicle of the Horse reporter. “It felt like it flowed nicely, and when I was done my coach was smiling—and if that happens you know you did well.”
     Unhappily the next five team events netted Skidmore just two more points, the result of senior Joanna Claustro’s fifth place in Saturday’s walk-and-trot equitation class. Later that day, Ohio University clinched the national title. But second place was still in reach. It was the last team event, the open class over fences, and Phibbs was the competitor.
     Skidmore’s smallest rider drew the biggest and greenest horse for a tight course. But she knew what to do: “My task was to present him as a horse that was compact, to make him look as good as the others. I wanted to be very accurate in approaching the jumps since it was a twisty course. I didn’t want to take a moment to let him be young.”
     When Phibbs was finished, a spellbound crowd burst into cheers, screams, and whistles. A coaching peer told Ford that Phibbs’s ride was the best intercollegiate ride he’d ever seen. Ford concurred, but the judge did not. Phibbs’s fifth-place ranking meant that Skidmore finished fifth overall, tied with the University of Findlay and Berry College.
     “We didn’t go there to be fifth,” Ford says. “We went with a team very capable of winning. But we just didn’t get that little bit of extra luck so necessary to win it all. I’m proud of our riders—and of our horses. When our riders didn’t win, our horses did—they helped other teams earn blues in five out of sixteen classes. Both are a reflection of the quality of our program.”
     So is Ford, who won the coach’s award at the event. “We were thrilled when her name was announced,” says Lindsay Gruner ’02. “The whole team raced out to give Cindy a big hug. We took over the whole ring. We were glad we could do that for her, because she’s an awesome coach. It made the whole weekend worthwhile.”

Publications director Peter MacDonald as a boy once walked and trotted, but didn’t dare canter, on a burro named Gordo.


© 2002 Skidmore College