KI High equestrians celebrate successful season
STEVENSVILLE — Though the Kent Island High School equestrian team was approved by the Queen Anne’s County Board of Education almost four years ago, it’s one of the school’s best kept secrets. Kent Island High is the only high school on the Eastern Shore that has one, making it unique. Like the KI High hockey team and sailing team, the equestrian team started with club status. However, those clubs can now earn varsity letters.
Having an equestrian team in a public school is almost unheard of. The creation of the KIHS team was through the perseverance of parent and former leader of the Pony Express 4-H Club, Tammy McCaslin, her daughter, Madelyn (Maddie), and KI Elementary Assistant Principal Arlene Reading. The three lobbied the school board to allow the creation of the team.
The equestrian community in Queen Anne’s County has a strong tradition of producing winners. It began more than 30 years ago, evolving from the county’s 4-H program. Each year the county qualified a number of very competitive young equestrians who competed successfully at the state 4-H fair in Timonium, first in speed events, particularly barrel racing. The Potter and Garlic families made their marks.
At the same time, Kim Ward of Stevensville competed at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress, held each year in Columbus, Ohio, the largest single-breed horse show in the world, taking local horse showing to another level. Ward, today, a Navy veteran, is professionally training horses with Branded Equine out of Joshua Stables in Carlisle, Pa.
Then came the finesse riders and performers, Karen Marx and Megan Wise, both winning state 4-H championships in Showmanship and Horsemanship.
David Walbert of Queenstown, another product of the QA 4-H program, has taken several local youth groups to the Appaloosa World Horse Show held in Oklahoma City for the past several years, also turning heads, and achieving top 10 placings at that show.
Queen Anne’s County currently has, and has had, many very talented young equestrians, and all they’ve needed is an opportunity to showcase their skills.
The showcase hit another plateau in 2015, when Angelina Watts of Stevensville graduated from KIHS becoming the first equestrian from the county to earn a $22,000 a year scholarship to be on the equestrian team at Delaware State University, one of only 24 Division 1 equestrian teams in the nation. Angelina began training with Karen Marx when only 9 years old, becoming a standout allaround performer in 4-H, and also competed on the national stage at the Congress show, two different years.
Many people also didn’t know that colleges have equestrian teams, and scholarships can be earned in equestrian sport just like football and basketball. Angelina’s mark has set the bar high for other local young equestrians, who now, not only want to follow in her footsteps, but, more importantly, believe they can and will earn equestrian scholarships.
Her college head coach, Jennifer Ridgely, of Wyoming, Del., has judged the Queen Anne’s County Fair horses shows numerous times over the past decade. She said she has noticed the improvement in competitive riding here. Following the 2014 QA Fair, she said, “There are many riders at this show who could turn their skills into college scholarships to further their educations.”
Teacher Sydney Podaza took over the “reins” of leadership of the KIHS equestrian team, now serving as team advisor, as the McCaslin family graduated from the high school in 2015. Podaza’s daughter Willow will be a senior this coming school year and will be serving a second consecutive year as team president.
Willow and Allison Thierry will be the team’s only seniors at this point.
“The team had a lot of firsts this past year,” said Sydney Podraza. “It was the first time we participated as a team in the homecoming parade. This was the first year we had a full roster, and the first time we placed in the Top 10 at the annual school invitational, placing eighth out of 20 teams. We performed community service and did fundraising. One of our team members, graduating senior Erin Beck, received a $500 scholarship at the athletic sports banquet. Erin will be attending Salisbury University.”
Podraza explained how the competitions run, “All of the competitions are in Montgomery County, where there are more high school equestrian teams. The competitions are either at Oatlands Stables in Gaithersburg, or NSF Stables in Poolsville. The competitors never ride their own horses. You’re assigned a mount to ride, and you’re not allowed to warm-up the horse. You just get up on the horse and the competition begins with commands from the judge. Usually eight to 12 riders in the show ring at the same time. Placings are made, and points are earned for your team.”
The competitions are governed by Inter-School High Show Series (ISHS) rules. Podraza added, “Willow has never ridden the same horse twice at any of the competitions the past three years. I think it’s made her a better rider, riding so many horses. That’s what the high school competitions do, expose you to so many horses.”
There are three different divisions: Maiden, for beginner/first year riders; Novice, for more experienced riders; and Future Intermediate, for the most experienced. In 2016-2017, the KI team will have enough riders to cover all three divisions. The ISHS shows are all Hunter/Jumper shows (English-style riding).
“The private schools have a leg up on us because they offer equestrian sport within their school curriculum,” said Podraza. “The larger private schools dominate the competitions right now. Many of the private schools have horses on their campuses, and the team members ride everyday. We don’t have that here in public school, but we compete.
“I’m proud of our team. To me, ‘we’re the little team that could!’ We will be part of the KIHS team showcase Tuesday, Aug. 2, beginning at 6:30 p.m. for students interested in trying out or joining sports teams at the school.”
Kent Island High School Equestrian Team: front row, Makenzie Miller, Katie Sheehi, Erin Beck, Willow Podraza, Merysa Kirk and faculty advisor Sydney Podraza; back row, Rachel Grabowski, Hannah Scott, Grace Park, Melissa Judge and Allison Thierry.
Schooling at team clinic at Snapdragon Stables in October, Makenzie Miller and Katie Sheehi.
Grace Park, left, and Willow Podraza display the team’s eighth place ribbon presented by the show official at the annual ISHS Invitational. KI High placed in the top 10 out of 20 high schools and was the only public school in Maryland competing the Hunter-Jumper show series.