Teams and individuals qualify for the IHSA National Championship Horse Show in Harrisburg.
The Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) held its Western Semi-Finals, sponsored by the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA), March 19-20. Hosting the events were West Virginia University (WVU) in Reedsville, West Virginia, Black Hawk College in Galva, Illinois, and Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. The events kicked off the IHSA postseason after a two-year hiatus. Western Semi-Finals is the qualifying event to determine which Western teams and individuals will compete at the IHSA National Championship Horse Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, May 5-8. From each Semi-Finals, the top four individuals per division and the top three teams advance to Nationals.
Semi-Finals Hosted by West Virginia University
At Semi-Finals hosted by West Virginia University, the team from St. Andrews University (Laurinburg, North Carolina), coached by Carla Wennberg, clinched the overall team win with Midway University (Midway, Kentucky), coached by Connor Smith, in second and Ohio State University (Columbus), coached by Ollie and Debbie Griffith, took the third spot. All top-three teams are National Championship-bound.
St. Andrews won the trophy and Western team honors in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, Smith was a member of Wennberg’s IHSA St. Andrews team when he won the AQHA High-Point Western Rider Championship. He began coaching at Midway University during the pandemic, and this is his first postseason and trip to Nationals in his coaching role. Over the years, Ohio State University has been a powerhouse IHSA Western team, earning 10 national team championships. Midway University won the top-team prize in 1987.
“I think if I had to go away and tell you the best thing about the show, it was how wonderful every school was to each other,” Wennberg said. “Semis is a little tougher competition. Everybody’s a little more competitive. But I thought everybody’s attitude about being helpful, not only to your team, but being there for each other, telling you how to ride their horses, it was, it was refreshing.”
Wennberg talked about how everyone missed the postseason the last two years. “I think we were all so happy to be competing again,” she said. “It’s just special to have my students do so well at what we had worked toward and ride the horses wonderfully. We had a lot of fun all being together and working toward that goal.”
Wennberg said how proud she was of Smith, her former student who led his team to second place. Wennberg gave him a little advice to handle the pressure. “I said, ‘Connor, it is a great lesson,’” she said. “’Just do your best, stay in there, keep everybody focused. You’ll see, you’ll be in a good place by the end of it.’ I think it’s super, he’s worked hard.”
In NRHA Individual Reining, the judges’ top pick was Faith Dantona, from Liberty University. The second through fourth place prizes went to Victoria Epstein, Nathan Sparren and Nigel Lancaster from Morrisville State College, Midway University and Ohio State University.
In Individual Open Horsemanship, Sara Beth Felker from St. Andrews University earned the top podium finish. Second-place finisher, Hannah Wright-Riley from Delaware Valley University, third-place Clara Lawson from Wilmington College and fourth–Ashley McClintock from Slippery Rock University will also make the trip to Harrisburg. Tammy Braham, from Grove City, Pennsylvania, and Steve Lackey, from Greensboro, North Carolina, officiated at the WVU-hosted event.
Semi-Finals at Texas Tech University
Texas Tech University hosted another IHSA Western Semi-Finals competition. Judges Daren Wright from Chillicothe, Ohio, and Holly Hover of Scottsdale, Arizona, presided over the event.
The overall Team championship went to the Lori Jaixen-led University of Nebraska at Lincoln squad with 41 points. The reserve honors went to West Texas A&M University, coached by Amanda Ellis, with 32 points. The University of Wisconsin, River Falls, with 27 points and coached by Janie Huot, finished third and punched their ticket to Harrisburg.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Jaixen said. “It was a great Semi-Finals and great horses. Everybody was just super excited and so grateful to be back. Honestly, I feel like everybody was cheering for everybody. It was just a phenomenal experience.”
Jaixen also shared that only one member of her team, a senior, had been to Western Semi-Finals before. “I took nine riders, she was the only rider that’s ever even known what Semi-Finals were,” she said. “We’ve been to Semi-Finals every single year since, for the past 12 years. Every year there’s always that chatter about it. But that’s been dead for two years and so the kids that I brought didn’t grasp what it was.”
In April 2020, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln sent everyone home. “From 2020 to 2021, we weren’t allowed to travel or compete,” Jaixen said. “But are really grateful for the University of Nebraska allowing the kids to still stay engaged and at the barn. The post-season is a step up. The students came out every single ride and did the plan they had and tried to make the best and it really paid off for them.”
West Texas A&M University’s Kamryn Woodard won the first-place slot in the Individual Open Horsemanship at Texas Tech University Semi-Finals. She will be joined by second-place finisher Madeline Keys from Alfred State College at Nationals. Third-place finisher Sarah Rucker from Middle Georgia State University, and fourth, Reilly Dhaliwal, from West Texas A&M University University, will also make the trip to Harrisburg.
From the North Dakota State University, Michela Long nabbed the win in the NRHA Individual Open Reining with Dhaliwal in second. Madison Gales, from Texas Tech University, and Sarah Eberspacher, from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, were third and fourth.
Semi-Finals at Black Hawk College
The Black Hawk College team, coached by Rebekah Irish, won on their home turf, earning 33 points, in a third Semi-Final event at their facility in Galva, Illinois. Saint Mary of the Woods, coached by Tabatha Taylor and the Albion College team, coached by Adam D’Agostino, finished in the second and third positions with 27 and 24 points, respectively, in the overall Team competition and will progress to the IHSA National Championships in Harrisburg. Carolyn Kendra Weiss, from Moberly, Missouri, and Lisa Moden, from Whitesboro, Texas, judged the event.
So much work goes into hosting an IHSA show, let alone the Western Semi-Finals. The host team puts a lot of time and effort into making sure everything goes off without a hitch. It’s always a wonder when a host team wins. The Black Hawk College team was on-site each morning at 4 a.m. to accomplish their tasks.
“I was really proud to watch my students host, organize, do all behind-the-scenes work and come out and be mentally tough and ready to compete the show pen.” Irish said. “That’s pretty cool to see.”
Like Wennberg and Jaixen, Irish was moved by the outpouring of help and atmosphere of positivity. “The IHSA community is really special,” she said. “Our horse providers were amazing. We had 30 outside horses come in to make this possible. It gives you perspective on what we missed out on and coming back makes you appreciate it all that much more.”
Irish explained that the theme of their Semi-Finals was, “It’s All About the Horse.”
“That’s truly what brings all of us together in this sport,” she said. “They allow us to compete. We are incredibly grateful to our providers to my peers in IHSA and the coaches and my staff here at Black Hawk College.”
She expressed thanks to her two regional presidents, Joleen DeWitt and Julie Mann, and volunteers from different schools that helped with score tabulation and awards and gave her the opportunity to work with her team during the competition.
In the Individual Open Horsemanship division, Maria Kochel from the University of Findlay owned the day. Lori Grindbach of Adrian College took second place, Aria Morgan, from Albion College, was third and Jordan Martin from Middle Tennessee State University, was fourth.
Jordan Martin from Middle Tennessee State University brought her game to the hotly-contested NRHA Individual Open Reining division, finishing in front. Second place went to Ashton Knerr from the University of Findlay. Both Martin and Albion College’s Morgan will compete in both NRHA Individual Open Reining and Individual Open Horsemanship in Harrisburg. The fourth slot to Christian Toy from Cal Poly State rounds out the qualifiers from the division.
“This weekend was an exciting return to postseason competition,” said IHSA Executive Director Peter Cashman. “Many thanks to our title sponsor, NRHA, and all our sponsors. Thank you to all the host schools, judges, riders and coaches. We look forward to Regionals and Zones for our hunter seat riders and our National Championship Horse Show in May. It’s good to be back in full swing!”
ABOUT THE IHSA
The Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) welcomes all genders at all riding levels and offers individual and team competition in hunter seat equitation, Western horsemanship and reining at more than 400 member colleges and universities. Membership in IHSA means that college students can participate in horse shows regardless of their experience or financial status. Students compete from beginner through advanced with suitable, provided horses, eliminating the expense of horse ownership.
Founded in 1967 by Bob Cacchione, it is the oldest and largest intercollegiate equestrian organization with 10,000 members in 47 states and Canada. IHSA college and university team participation is represented through a variety of programs, including varsity athletics, academic departments and club sports. IHSA offers valuable hands-on experience and professional development in multiple facets of the equine industry. Many IHSA teams participate in service projects, giving back to their communities. Through the IHSA, students enhance their college experience and develop the tools that help build successful careers.