Philomath’s equestrian team took first place in the medium school division at state in Redmond. (Photo provided by Karenza Martin)

Over the four-day high school equestrian state meet that wrapped up this past Sunday in Redmond, Philomath coach Karenza Martin hadn’t really paid too much attention to what other teams might be competing in the medium school division.

Then came the announcements of the OHSET (Oregon High School Equestrian Teams) champions.

“Going in, I did not expect it … but I knew they had the potential in every event,” Martin said early this week while reflecting on her team’s state-winning performance. “It’s an incredibly strong group of girls this year — good riders, good horses and extremely dedicated. And when it was all coming together, I was like ‘there’s a chance with the way they break it down by team.’”

Martin said that after the final event, she started to think Philomath might have a shot at a team title and suggested, “Let’s stay a little longer.”

Freshman Briahna Ledbetter described the reaction of coaches.

“It was a great moment,” Ledbetter said. “They were working so hard … they were just speechless, like, you can’t believe that just happened … almost to tears.”

Along with Ledbetter, the team includes three other local students — Alyssa Kvidt, Makayla Lillie and Cadence Stevens. Three Crescent Valley students also ride with the PHS team — Kendal Norcross, Allie Gilmour and Maddy Lehmeyer. In certain combination events, Philomath teams up with Brooke McKinley of Corvallis High, Kylie Thorson of Alsea and Reagan Gurney of Santiam Christian.

Gilmour, Gurney, Kvidt, Ledbetter, Lehmeyer, Lillie, McKinley and Norcross all qualified for state and will also compete at the Pacific Northwest Invitational Championship meet, which will run June 16-18 also in Redmond. The top five placewinners from the Oregon and Washington state meets qualified.

Joining Martin on the coaching staff are Jordan Payne and Savannah Stokes as assistants and Dolly Beck as adviser.

Young but experienced

“We were returning riders from last year and the rest are all new but it definitely helps to bring some experience back,” Martin said. “Savannah Stokes, who’s coaching this year, rode with us last year … she agreed to come back and help us.”

The experience factored into a more calm group competing in a large stadium-style arena setting in the Deschutes County Fair and Expo Center.

“Last year, we had a lot of nerves and this year, they were confident, they were ready,” Martin said. “They knew what to expect and they definitely helped those freshman riders.”

Gilmour, Kvidt, Ledbetter, Lillie, Lehmeyer, Norcross, McKinley and Gurney won the team drill competition, also known as the freestyle 5-plus. The group had a total score in the event of 2,122, which was 15 points better than runner-up Oregon City.

Oregon City, by the way, was the large-school champion.

“For me, I definitely got more comfortable throughout the whole season and my individual events definitely progressed with each meet,” Lillie said. “But I think state was the first time that our drill team actually came together because through the three district meets, something went wrong every time. State was the only time that it actually came together and worked out.”

Lehmeyer won the barrels with a time of 15.071 seconds, beating out the runner-up time of 15.164 turned in by a rider from Oregon City. In the two-man birangle, Gilmour and Lehmeyer scored big points as reserve champion in 25.379, just behind an Oregon City pair’s top time of 25.102.

Gilmour had a time of 18.78 seconds in the Figure 8 competition to place third. In the hand obstacle relay, Gilmour, Kvidt, Ledbetter and McKinley placed third. Norcross took fourth in the in-hand trail competition. Philomath tied for fifth in team versatility with Gilmour, Ledbetter, Lillie and Norcross. 

Others in the top 15 included Kvidt in showmanship (tied for seventh), Gilmour in pole bending (eighth), Norcross in reining (tied for 10th), Gilmour in barrels (11th), Kvidt, Lehmeyer, Gurney and McKinley in team versatility (11th), Norcross and Gurney in working pairs (tied for 13th) and Kvidt and Ledbetter in working pairs (tied for 15th). 

Looking back on season

Kvidt said the season didn’t necessarily go as planned as far as who she was riding.

“My original horse that I was going to be riding for most of the speed events, I ended up not being able to use,” she said. “So I had to ride three other ones throughout the season. It was kind of a mess but it was nice because I didn’t really have a lot to pressure myself with because it was pretty unexpected. So I just ran with it and it ended up being better than my season last year even.”

Maddy Lehmeyer and Allie Gilmour were reserve champions in two-man birangle. (Photo provided by Karenza Martin)

The horse that Kvidt couldn’t use for speed, Candy, was still in the arena for performance events. She rode Dash for drill and cow sorting, Jazz (Stokes’s horse) for some early-season speed events and then another girl’s horse, Porsche. Toward the end of the season, she bought Lena.

Kvidt said her most successful event this season was showmanship. Last year as a freshman, she qualified in eight events.

“It helped a lot because I kinda knew to not expect a lot out of it,” Kvidt said. “Like as a freshman, I kinda got my hopes up too high — and we did decent but we didn’t do as well as I would have hoped. But this year, I went in with lower expectations and it was a lot more fun.”

Ledbetter, a freshman, is familiar with equestrian competitions with her involvement in open shows prior to joining the high school team. She did help with the team last year as a groom.

“For drill, we had only been going up against one other team for our district meets but for state, we went up against like 25 — and we ended up winning,” Ledbetter said. “So, it’s a lot more competitive but I guess we rose to the occasion.”

Ledbetter, who called Western horsemanship her favorite and strongest event, competed with four different horses this year — Gracie and Snickers, miniature ponies; Dakota, her performance horse; and Desiree for drill and gaming.

Lillie said working rancher was her favorite event this year individually but she really enjoyed drill as a team event.

“I enjoy horses because it’s something outside and challenging to do,” Lillie said, “and I’ve been doing it since I was pretty much born.”

She rides a 5-year-old named Sierra, a rescue horse from Texas.

“It was definitely nerve wracking, especially for drill, because that arena is huge,” Lillie said about state. “But from my other events, I felt fairly prepared and it went well.”

Philomath’s drill team took first place. (Photo provided by Karenza Martin)

Commitment and culture

The team members commit to several weeks of practice beginning Nov. 1 and leading up to the district meets in February, March and April — all staged in Albany.

“It’s definitely a labor of love and those cold winter days when we are in the barn until 8, 8:30, not home until nearly 9, is rough but it is so special to see the kids achieve their goals,” Martin said. “When they’re rewarded with a state championship, it’s pretty unmatched. It keeps you motivated to keep going through because it’s a long season.”

Being high school students, the commitment to equestrian comes on top of a lot of other responsibilities and activities. To pay for competing, the equestrian team organizes fundraisers, secures sponsors and the rest comes out of pocket, Martin said.

In fact, a team dad, Johnny Gilmour, became a major sponsor by converting a hay barn into a practice arena. In past years, the team practiced at the Benton County Fairgrounds.

“We’re very grateful to have that this year,” Martin said. “(He) took all of the hay out, brought in new footing, so we didn’t have to pay arena fees because things got too expensive for us.”

In the Willamette district competitions, Philomath was the overall large team champion and won gold medals in drill, in-hand obstacle relay, working pairs, birangle, team versatility, figure 8, saddle seat, In-hand trail, horsemanship and reining.

They also won silver medals in working pairs, hunt seat equitation, showmanship, barrels, pole bending, individual flags and reining, and bronze medals in working pairs, hunt seat equitation, horsemanship, barrels, sorting, team versatility, in-hand trail.

Brad Fuqua

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.

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