For Towson teen equestrians Samantha Rehak and MadelynVanWestervelt, making fast and accurate decisions can mean the difference between winning a competition and being an also-ran.
After all, they are graded on how swiftly they can assess and then handle a horseweighing between 800 to 1,200 pounds in a variety of the sport calledhunt seat equitation.
But the teens' ability and acumen have earned the girls a trip to the Interscholastic Equestrian Association ChampionshipApril 24-26in West Palm Beach, Fla.with the Full Moon Farm team. This, after placing first out of 13 other teams in the International Equitation League Zone 3 Finals the last weekend of March.
Hunt seat equitation is done is done in the hunt style of riding — derived from the hunt field — which can include flat classes of walking, trotting, cantering in patterns or in over fences classes, in which horse and rider jump obstacles.
Just before competing, there is a blind draw for which horses the riders will mount, said Myron Leff, chief operating and marketing officer for the Interscholastic Equestrian Association.
"We supply all the horses and their tack for competition," Leff said.
By putting their equine intuition to good use, Madelyn placed first in her class and Samantha third in individual competition with both garnering valuable points for their Full Moon Farm team.
Quick-thinking is part and parcel of what the girls must do to help their team prevail, consideringthat riders only have 30 seconds to size up the horse before competing and even less time when competing on flat events, or those that do not include jumping.
That's when the girls' snap judgment of a horse and its temperament comes into play.
Sounding much older than her age, Madelyn said that assessing how a horse will react is not always easy or close to being an exact science.
"You have to figure out how it will respond, which way it will drift — all the quirky things horses can do," the Loch Raven Technical Academy seventh-grader said. "I'm really light, so the horse may think it can do what it wants. But you have to show them that they can't. You have to put them in a 'box.'"
Often there are, the girls cautioned, written descriptions of the horses and their personalities handed to the riders, although those descriptions can become meaningless if horse and rider don't mesh.
"The descriptions can be perfect," said Samantha, a seventh-grader at Immaculate Conception School, who also plays the piano and is a sprinter on the school's track team. "But if the horse doesn't like you, it won't work. You have to take control of the horse, but you have to treat each horse differently."
"And if you do something wrong, the horse wants to get rid of you," Madelyn chimed in about the vagaries of equine personality traits.
The local girls' affinity for horses go back to their pre-kindergarten eras.
"Samantha's love of horses began around 4 years old," her mother, Jodi Rehak said.
"All she talked about were ponies and horses. She expressed an interest in riding, so for her 6th birthday, we gave her riding lessons," Rehak said. "She began riding once a week at Tack 'n Trot (now Urban Ridge Farms) on Greenspring Avenue under the direction of the late Frances Merryman. Her weekly lesson consisted of learning how to properly groom, tack and ride ponies."
Madelyn took the same path, according to her mom, Amy VanWestervelt.
"She was obsessed with horses before she could even speak," she said. "When Madelyn turned 7, we gave her riding lessons at Full Moon Farm, and she hasn't looked back.She has been immersed in all aspects of barn life and the riding community."
Meanwhile, the girls and their parents have no hesitation about enjoying their decades-old friendship.
"We met [Rus and AmyVanWestervelt] through mutual friends," said Samantha's mom. "We clicked right away."
As Madelyn puts it, she and Samantha have been "friends since birth."
Both girls have artistic sides to them, especially Madelyn, who gets a double thumbs-up from her buddy for her drawing ability.
"She is the best artist," raved Samantha about Madelyn's talent.
Still, much of their free time is spent commuting to Full Moon Farm in Finksburg for lessons and practice under the tutelage of owners Karen and Stephen Fulton.
Samantha usually makes the trip four times a week while Madelyn's regimen is slightly more forgiving.
But it's post-practice sessions in the Rehak's backyard in Riderwood Hills that catches their parents' attention.
That's when the girls practice jumping 2-foot fences that they would face in competition on their horses while prancing about the yard.
"They pretend like their riding," Samatha's dad, Sean Rehak, said.
And that dedication to the sport and their teammates, he said, comes from the coaches.
"The whole idea of a team [concept] trickles down from the top," Rehak said.
RusVanWestervelt has a similar viewpoint.
"I can't stress enough what the coaching has done for the kids," said Rus VanWestervelt, who writes the Towson neighborhood column for this newspaper.
"This is the girls' first year in IEA, although they have ridden on teams in a similar format, which really helped prepare them for this year," Full Moon Farm team coach Karen Fulton said. "They both have worked hard to be successful, and they know this is just one step along the way to being a good rider."
They are on the right track now that the girls and their teammates are among the 400 or so championship qualifiers out of 11,000 riders originally hoping to advance to the meet in Florida.
"When I'm handing out ribbons to the winners at the end of the finals, there are a lot of upset kids who didn't win," Leff said.