Wilde Lake boasts county's top equestrian team

When Christina Catizone moved back to Howard County nearly four years ago, she was determined to share her passion for horses and equestrian competition with anyone willing to listen.

Back when she was a teenager set to attend Wilde Lake High School, Catizone's family uprooted to Ocala, Fla.— an area widely regarded as the "horse capital of the world" for its scores of barns and trainers throughout the region.

Using her interest as inspiration to start a career, Catizone returned to Maryland as an adult and began giving lessons and training at Treeline Springs in Marriottsville, along with friend and business partner, Melinda Gilmer.

Even in Florida, Catizone wasn't introduced to the world of inner-school equestrian competition. The same could be said for the public school girls she worked with here.

"I really liked the team aspect," Catizone said. "But, all the competitions were mostly for private schools. Being a public school graduate, I wanted these girls to have that experience I never had."

After establishing her own business, Catizone helped start the equestrian team at River Hill High School. A year later, Wilde Lake rider Madison DeLawder convinced the coach to expand her influence and create a team for the Wildecats as well.

"We started with just making posters for the back-to-school fairs," Catizone said. "There were some kids who were interested in riding, but had never done it before."

While there was plenty of curiosity throughout the community, there was a lot of work to be done.

In Howard County — an area already engrossed in sports culture — Catizone and company knew there was room for casual horse-riders to grow into serious equestrian competitors. So far, Glenelg/Glenwood, coached by Gilmer, joins the Hawks and the Wildecats as the only full teams that compete in the Inter-School Horse Show Series — a collection of Maryland schools that meet for competitions throughout the year, with the regular season ending in March.

This past year, in a field of 12 scoring schools, Wilde Lake captured second as the reserve champion, while River Hill was fourth, and Glenelg/Glenwood finished 11th. The success was a stark contrast to the state of the sport just a few years earlier, when Howard County failed to capture a prominent voice in the arena of equestrian competition.

"People are just starting to hear about us," said DeLawder, who serves as captain of the Wilde Lake team. "That makes it hard for people who may ride, or would even like to ride. If they don't know teams exist, they don't know the opportunity is there either."

While private institutions like Connelly School of the Holy Child — which finished first in 2014 — have a stronghold on the competition, Howard County is quickly making a name for itself.

"We're absolutely thrilled we got fourth," said River Hill captain Brianna Mentle, whose Hawks finished just two points removed from the top-three. "To show these private schools that Howard County has the potential was great."

Split into junior varsity and varsity teams, with the latter allowing eight participants on the squad, competitors are judged for walk and trot, and flat classes. Following qualification in one of those two events, they advance to "over fence" class, where the rider takes the horse through a series of hurdles to jump over.

"(The sport) has been around for years and years. It's a very big scene," said DeLawder's mother, Melissa, who shares a passion for the sport just like her daughter does. "It does a lot for your mind. The mental awareness you have to have with the horse creates that connection. You have to be cognizant of the area around you, the other animals, the weather, anything that could affect them."

One of the biggest obstacles those interested in showing in Howard County have to face is the financial burden of owning a horse, according to Melissa DeLawder.

Some riders choose to lease their animals from barns they have access to year-round.

While DeLawder can ride her horse whenever she wants to practice or compete, many of her teammates can not. Now, after years of leasing, the DeLawder family even decided to purchase their horse.

Instead of working with the same animal, many competitors lease a different one from every show just for the day. "It takes a lot of skill from the riders," added DeLawder of her teammates, many of whom choose that route.

It's a random draw lease, and riders don't even get a chance to warm up on that horse before thrown into the ring. This, according to Catizone, is where the "team sport" aspect comes into play.

"My technical job is to help them at the show in any way they need," she said. "Getting them ready for their classes, making sure their appearance is how I want it. You're the one who is judged, not the horse."

The same goes for the teammates, who often find themselves working with each other on different techniques, making adjustments to one another and greeting each rider with a cheer and a smile.

"It's definitely similar to all the other sports, in that it's a friendly competition," Mentle said. "You know these students. You grew up riding with them."

Many of the riders from different schools also show in other events, including the Howard County Horse Show Association, the Maryland Horse Show Association and the Virginia Horse Show Association.

The Maryland Horse Show Association will continue its A, B and C-rated shows — which depend on rider experience — through October, while the Howard County Horse Shows Association will conclude its season with the medal finals on Oct. 5.

Between the inter-school shows, as well as extracurricular events, equestrian competition is a year-round sport.

Along with that, familiarity with opposing riders from other schools starts at an early age, as many have been training together at various barns across the state for years. While it's a different story once she's in the ring, the River Hill rising junior said she's always looking out for her teammates first.

"Even if we don't win, if our friends do, we're excited for them," she said. "We know how hard everyone works."

Despite the sharp rise in equestrian interest across the region, Catizone doubts there will be a strong push for the sport to upgrade past its current "club" status in the eyes of the Howard County Public Schools system. Though the River Hill team fought, and won, rights to varsity letters this season, there are still too many financial and insurance complications to tackle before equestrian teams get the recognition that their soccer, football and basketball counterparts regularly receive.

Mentle and DeLawder choose to embrace those challenges, rather than let them stand in their way. Both girls aspire to continue their involvement in horses well past their high school showing years, all the while remembering the life lessons learned in the process.

"We're instilling teamwork and independence at the same time," Catizone said. "I want them to not expect anything from anyone. But, at the same time, I want them to know when their teammate is trying, and when they aren't."

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