Posted by: Staff | 05.28.2008

Student Spotlight: Ali Cooper and Piers Turner

ALI COOPER ’09

Every athlete comes to a point in her career when she has to decide how seriously she takes her sport. In most cases, this life-changing decision isn’t set in stone until the athlete’s senior year of high school, when the athlete begins to think about competing in college. For horseback riders, however, this decision must be made around the age of 12 or 13 when he or she is forced to choose how rigorously she wants to pursue the competition aspect of the sport. This pre-teen has to blindly begin a journey that will impact her entire experience as a high schooler, as well as her mental, physical and emotional state.

I’ve competed on the circuit since the age of 13. Competitions in New England only take place from late March/early April until late October/early November. Among the last few horse shows of the year are the finals, which riders qualify for by accumulating a certain number of points throughout the show season.

This was the norm: the show circuit I had been accustomed to since my mom started telling me stories about her past junior riding career. Yes, I knew there were bigger and better circuits and horse shows out there, but I never assumed I would actually be able to participate. Imagine my surprise when I learned I’d be competing in HITS Ocala (the Ocala Winter Circuit) in Florida all winter. (HITS stands for Horse Shows in the Sun.)

My mom and dad sprung the news while I was competing at the New England Finals in the fall. I never thought my parents would allow me such a treat. In their eyes, I’d have to have Fridays off from school, fly back and forth to Florida every weekend, and I’d lose valuable homework time, as I would be at the horse show all of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

I guess Amy and Joe Cooper were in some sort of daze when signing the forms. My dad (not so much a fan of the horse world…smart guy…) seemed to finally understand how passionate I’d grown about horses and competing. I would be away from my dad every weekend for over a month. He had to work on the weekends, and couldn’t schedule a time to come and watch me compete. My dad’s inability to sneak away to Ocala for a weekend was devastating, but he was so supportive over the phone and loved seeing pictures after I’d come home every Sunday night.
My horse left on January 20th. He boarded a van that drove 28 hours down to parking lot-splattered chain-restaurant-crammed Ocala, Florida. On February 14th, I flew into Orlando and drove an hour and a half north to Ocala. We stayed at a Marriott hotel, and on Friday morning, we woke up at 5 AM to drive to the show so I could make my 6:30 lesson. I lessoned that morning and then competed in three classes that afternoon. Saturday I competed in another three classes, and Sunday I competed in one class in the jumper division. (Jumpers are judged on speed, rather than fluidity.) By the end of the weekend, I was barely breathing, I was so tired. I slept so well over the next few weeks. Between flying constantly and riding for hours at a time every day for three days periods, I was exhausted…to put it lightly.

As the weeks progressed, I started to grasp the importance of my experience in Ocala. Yes, I faced tornado warnings, torrential downpours, sketchy parking lots, and serious amounts of fast food, but the riding portion of the journey was absolutely life-changing. I was given the opportunity to compete in a national circuit, against some of the best riders in the country.
I had to push myself so hard in order to succeed. Since most of our barn’s horses were down in Florida, I couldn’t really ride during the week to stay sharp for the weekends. I didn’t have enough time in my weekend to regress all the way back to where I had started, so I had to force myself to remember every detail that I’d learned the previous weekend. There wasn’t enough time for error, and I wanted to be successful. In the end, competing at such a high level in such a concentrated block of time helped me to become a better athlete.

Piers Turner (’10) took part in another winter circuit, the Winter Equine Festival (WEF), that takes place in Wellington, Florida. The Wellington circuit is much longer than the Ocala Circuit, and the physical size of the show grounds is much larger, but WEF draws about the same number of riders as Ocala (around 4,000). Regardless of the differences between WEF and the Ocala Circuit, Piers and I came away from our winter adventures with similar feelings. When discussing riding in Florida, we agreed that the circuits were like nothing we had ever come across.

“Wellington is an experience like none other. When I first got there, the physical size and the amount of people and horses in Wellington was absolutely amazing. It was like nothing I had ever seen before,” commented Piers. It took both of us a few days to adjust to the maze-like qualities of our separate show grounds. Finding your ring is one of the biggest challenges.
It took a few days to adjust to the maze. Finding your ring can be challenging at first.” All of the HITS show rings, except for the massive Grand Prix ring, is surrounded by a full-sized race track, just to give you all an idea of its size. WEF is even larger.

Both Piers and I completely agree that our few weeks competing in Florida proved more helpful and more beneficial than riding five or six times per week at our home barns. We were so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to travel to Florida every weekend and pursue the sport that we love.

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