SSU Equestrian squad goes national
Villasenor, Elsinetti earn opportunity to showcase their skills in Pennsylvania
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By Mira Brody  May 2, 2014 12:00 am

While the rest of Sonoma State University is busy studying for finals, students Sarah Villasenor and Nicole Elsinetti have completed theirs early and are currently flying out to Harrisburg, Pa., to compete for their school’s Equestrian Club team in a national competition. 

Elsinetti won first place Novice Over Fences at zone competitions and regionals, and Villasenor won first place in Walk/Trot at zones, qualifying her to compete at Nationals.

“If we do well in Pennsylvania, it is really an honor for our team to show how hard we’ve worked this year,” says Shira Rebibo, who has been riding for 14 years.

The Sonoma State Equestrian Club has experienced their most successful year since the team was formed in 2008 by two freshmen girls, Kirbi Rogers and Michelle Davis.

“They weren’t in a sorority, and they couldn’t really find what they wanted to do there, and the school’s kind of small, so it helps if you’re involved in something,” explains rider Taylor Leigh. “They both had a passion for horses, so they decided to start a club team.”

Unlike UC Davis and other California Universities, SSU does not have its own stables, so trainer Carrie Hover offered her skills and ranch for the girls to use. There they can advance their skills under her steadfast direction and utilize the beautiful Petaluma Hill Stables just across the street from the school.

The ranch itself has been there for about 23 years, and offers lessons for all levels and boarding facilities. Each student pays for their lessons, practices once a week and holds monthly fundraisers as well as write sponsor letters to come up with the funding for their program. This is, of course, in addition to attending school full-time and working.

“It’s hard because the other club teams at school don’t really take us seriously, and we’re looking to change that,” says Elsinetti. “We’re just looking to get the word out, expand the team more and have people learn about it. We’re looking to be more involved in the community.” 

Elsinetti’s mother was a horse instructor herself, so Nicole has been riding since she was about 4 years old. Both she and Villasenor are ecstatic to represent their school in the competitions, which take place this weekend. They will be up against about 300 other schools, many of which have much more funding and support.

When you first join the equestrian team, you are placed in whichever level of riding you are at the time, then compete among the other 12 schools in our county’s regionals. If you place in regionals, you move onto compete within the West Coast Zone and hopefully gain enough points to make it to Nationals.

The girls compete in what is called “catch riding,” where you essentially draw a horse’s name from a hat and ride it in your competition for the first time. This can be tough because horseback riding relies heavily on the bond between the animal and its rider.

“You don’t know the horse as an individual,” says Hover. “You haven’t bonded with it, so you have to jump on and adjust. You only have one time to make these assessments really quickly.”

“It’s very difficult,” says Julia Caruana, who also did well in the Over Fences competition in regionals. “Then you have to be the best of the best to place in your zone.”

Hover mentions that catch riding does provide a more even playing field, because some girls cannot afford their own horses: “You don’t know what horse you’re going to get, but neither does anyone else.”

Most of the girls on the team live together, and a couple even came up to Sonoma State from their hometown as childhood friends. Despite their varying backgrounds and skill levels, it is clear how close the SSU Equestrian Club is to each other, forming a strong force of support as they send two of their best to face competitions this weekend.

“We’re proud to send Sonoma to Pennsylvania,” says Caruana.

To see photos or read more about the local equestrian team’s triumphs, they have a Facebook page and website at

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