After rigorous regional and zone competition, the Sonoma State University equestrian team is once again going to nationals and this time around English Hunt Riders Michelle Villasenor and Courtney Debrunner will be competing with 16 other riders at the national collegiate competition in Pennsylvania on May 4.
Whatever the outcome of today’s walk-trot, traditional English hunt competition, the riders are thrilled to have made it this far in the competition, a goal they have been working towards for quite some time.
Michelle Villasenor, a Los Angeles native, has been riding horses since she was eight-years-old and has followed in her sister’s footsteps of riding the hunt seat at Sonoma State.
“I have two older sisters and they both did horseback riding so I said, ‘OK, I guess I’ll try it out and I ended up loving it.’ Then I was going to Sonoma State and I was thinking of joining the Western team but I decided to try something new and Hunt seat worked out really well,” Villasenor said, who also mentioned that her sisters were part of her inspiration to ride.
The Western seat usually involves reigning with rope and wearing Western style attire such as chaps and cowboy hats, whereas Hunt is typically more formal and consists of clearing gates, jumping and the walk-trot.
Friday’s Hunt seat tournament will consist of similar events and while Villasenor doesn’t do jumping, she will do gates and also faces the challenge of having to ride a horse picked at random, an often difficult task as each horse has a unique personality which can be hard to adjust to.
“It’s nerve racking (not riding a familiar horse), but our trainer is very good at preparing us well and we’ve been riding different horses with different personalities to see how we would handle that because we really have no idea who we are going to ride on the day of competition,” Villasenor explained. “It is interesting getting to know horses.”
Their trainer Carrie Hover of Petaluma Hill Stables, also prepares them for being judged on how they ride and how they look on a horse, a key component of the competition.
Villasenor and Debrunner also work on properly tacking their horses and perfecting how they ride on the horse during their practice sessions with Hover. However, the tacking and riding may not be the most difficult part of the day’s trials.
It will be, “...stiff competition with Stanford and Berkeley,” Hover said, who has been training for 10 years since the inception of the SSU equestrian team and has been riding horses her whole life.
Debrunner said she too has been training twice a week with Hover to get ready for the competition, which she says can come down to some very nit-picky details, such as how you sit on your horse and how your gloved hands curl over the reins.
She also trains during her summer and winter breaks when she’s not getting ready for a competition.
“I try to ride as much as possible, I’ve pretty much been riding my whole life. I did take a break in high school to play volleyball and I got a scholarship to Humboldt to play volleyball but then transferred to Sonoma State,” Debrunner said.
She then had to quit volleyball due to health reasons and through word of mouth, discovered the equestrian team and joined immediately and found her new sport.
Villasenor is happy to have reached this point as making it to zones — which qualified her to nationals, was questionable as she was recovering from a concussion and had been given strict orders by her doctor not to ride for a certain amount of time. Luckily, she was able to get back on her horse in time and compete in both regionals and zones.
Debrunner is also excited because this is her first time making it to the nationals and she has only been riding show for two years, so to reach this level so quickly has been a dream come true.
“I’m most excited because I’ve never made it this far and I’ve never made it to nationals so all of this is new to me even though I’ve been on the team for three years,” Debrunner said. “I was stressed out about regionals and zones, but now I just want to have fun since it’s my senior year and if I place, I place, if I don’t, that’s OK. I reached my goal.”
Echoing the two teammates thoughts, Hover mused that even if they do not take home any awards, the sight of seeing them come this far on the team and having fun will be a monumental moment.
And despite the challenge of riding an unfamiliar horse and being compared to several other riders, Villasenor says the most rewarding aspect of it all is being able to see her family in the stands cheering her on.
“My family... is so supportive and they come up to every show and when I’m in the area and focusing and see that they’re here it’s like, ‘oh my gosh I have to do well for them.’ And if I haven’t done well they are still supportive of me. It’s very rewarding,” Villasenor said.
Previous awards brought home by the SSU team include; the Hunt Seat Reserve Championship for 2014-2015, 10th Place National Champion in Walk/Trot (Rider Sarah Villasenor) for 2013-2014, 11th Place National Champion in Novice Jumping (Rider Nicole Elsineitti) for 2013-2014, Zone 8 Champions in Walk-Trot (Rider Sarah Villasenor) and Novice Jumping (Rider Nicole Elsineitti) for 2013-2014 and Zone 8 Region 1 Novice Jumping Champion (Rider Nicole Elsineitti) for 2013-2014.