Something exciting is going on in the barns and arenas of Lewis County. High school students from all over the county are loading their horses, hay and tack into their trailers, packing their bags and heading out to face some serious competition. The very competitive WAHSET season is officially underway.

washington orthopaedic centerThe 23 member W.F. West Washington High School Equestrian Team has been rigorously preparing for the 2016 season since last October. They have spent their winter months trailering horses, parents often at the wheel, through rain, wind and snow, up to six times a week, to five different farms and ranches throughout the area. There they have been working cattle and practicing their gaming, performance and equestrian drill team skills. They must be prepared, because they face some fierce competition this year, since they are part of the one of the largest districts in the state, District 6.

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The 2016 W.F. West Equestrian Team is prepared to take on the competition in District 6. Students hail from Chehalis, Napavine, Onalaska, Centralia, Winlock and Adna. Photo courtesy: Sophie West.

District 6 includes W.F. West, Cedarcrest, Enumclaw, Mossyrock, Sedro Woolley and Tumwater. There are 131 riders that make up this district. The riders on the W.F. West team hail from several schools as well. These include riders from Chehalis, Napavine, Onalaska, Centralia, Winlock, and this year they have welcomed the former Adna Equestrian team to join their ranks. Last year, Adna riders were part the much smaller District 4 and this is their first opportunity to compete in a large team division.

Head Coach and District 6 Chair Adam Kaspar said, “District 6 and W.F. West are proud to welcome Adna to our district. Adna has very strong riders, and have contributed greatly to the success of this team.”

Adna junior Josee O’Mealy, one of these new additions to the W.F. West team, is excited about the transition. “I am proud to be a part of such an amazing team. The girls are all supportive. They make me feel like I am already a part of their family.”

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Josee O’Mealy and Shasta take a leap in Jumping. Photo courtesy: Josee O’Mealy.

Many people are involved in supporting the equestrian aspirations of our WAHSET riders. In addition to Coach Kaspar, there are at least seven other coaches keeping the team in their saddles. They each specialize in specific areas of the equestrian arts such as cattle, performance, jumping and drill. They work regularly with riders from all ability levels, along with their horses, to prepare them for competition, eight months out of the year.

Shannon Gaffney, mother of freshman rider Rylee Gaffney said, “WAHSET is a wonderful group of kids, coaches and parents coming together to support a sport that doesn’t only involve a student, but a 1,200 pound animal as well.”

WAHSET has contributed to helping these girls become more responsible and disciplined young women. Junior Sophie West admitted, “It’s really helped me to achieve my goals. I’ve sometimes had problems keeping my grades up, but because they have such high standards for grades for our team, I’ve had to work extra hard to keep up my grades. That’s definitely made me more responsible as a student.”

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Rylee Gaffney rides her horse Koda in the Poles competition. Photo courtesy: Sophie West.

O’Mealy said her participation in WAHSET has increased her self-confidence. “I have blown so many patterns,” she confessed. “I’ve knocked over so many poles. I used to get upset about all of the little things that weren’t going my way. Now I am able to laugh if my horse loses his mind in the middle of dressage, or if I don’t get the barrel or pole run I was hoping for, because I know that I will only be a better equestrian if I take it as it is, without getting upset at my horse. I have been able to feel myself being more relaxed in stressful situations outside of WAHSET as well.”

But it’s really the families who keep these kids in the arena. Parents have made not only a financial commitment, but a major commitment in time and energy in support of their children’s passion for horses and the thrill of competition. Denise Crosier, Sophie West’s mother explained, “It’s a huge commitment for riders and their parents. It’s a time commitment, a responsibility commitment, a financial commitment, at least six hours, three times a week, four days at a time for the meets, and those at twenty-four hours a day. State and regionals is going to be even more.” She added that was on top of annual dues, uniform costs, event costs, gas, food and lodging. But, laughing she said, “Watching is free.”

That’s not a bad idea, either. For any lover of horses and the rodeo, WASHET competitions can be a thrilling smorgasbord of equestrian intrigue. In addition to the more refined events like Dressage, Jumping and Performance, there are also many adrenaline-inducing events for the spectator. These include Poles, Canadian Flag Relay, Breakaway Roping and, as I came to learn, Steer Daubing. This requires that the rider chase a steer across the arena and smear mustard on it with a pole before it reaches the other side. The concept of pre-seasoned beef is not lost on the girls. “It’s a pretty funny idea, actually,” said O’Mealy of the event. “Of course, there are lots of jokes about that.”

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Sophie West and Daisy sprint to the finish line. Photo courtesy: Sophie West.

Gaffney believes the reward far outweighs the cost of having her child involved in the sport. “All the time and work is so worth seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces. It’s pretty amazing watching Rylee working together with her horse, Koda, and accomplishing goals that kids in other sports could never understand.”

There are still two more opportunities to watch the girls in action during the regular season. The first is March 31 through April 3 at the Grays Harbor Fairgrounds. The final meet is April 21 through 24 at the Tacoma Unit in Spanaway. State competitions are May 12 through 15.

Denise Cosier pointed out that when the season ends in May, it will be time to start the summer 4­H equestrian show season. When asked why she continues to keep her daughter Sophie involved in such an extremely demanding sport, she sighed and said simply, “We love horses.”

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