‘They wanted me to love the horses, not the sport’: Equestrian athletes grow through connection with their steeds

Maddie Callaway competes on Starbuck during Baylor's opening meet against Texas A&M on Jan. 30. Photo courtesy of Baylor Athletics

by Marquis Cooley | Reporter

Baylor University offers a wide variety of athletic programs, but only one involves athletes competing with an animal.

The Baylor equestrian team began its inaugural season in 2005. Since then, equestrians have been contributing to Baylor’s long history of winning with four Big 12 Championships and a Hunter Seat National Championship.

Like most other college athletes, equestrians find their love for the sport at a young age. Loveland, Colo., junior western rider Madaline Callaway has been around horses her entire life.

“My mom rode horses growing up, and so we had a horse whenever I was born,” Callaway said. “I just got super into it, and then we ended up moving to a farm. And then I just wanted to continue getting better at riding horses and doing it competitively.”

Buzzards Bay, Mass., freshman jumping seat rider Emma Fletcher had a similar childhood.

“I was raised on a farm, so I was always around horses,” Fletcher said. “My parents never pressed me to do riding. They wanted me to really love the horses, not the sport.”

Although all members of the equestrian team have a strong competitive spirit, it’s their shared love of the horses that unites them. Fletcher said what she loves most about equestrian is the bond she gets to form with the horses.

“Being able to have a connection with an animal such as a horse and being able to work with something that can’t speak,” Fletcher said. “That’s my favorite part is being able to develop with horses, to teach them and for them to teach us as well.”

Callaway said she was recently taught a lesson from one of the horses she works with.

“[Baylor has] a couple pretty super talented horses,” Callaway said. “I was riding one of them this morning, and he really just brought out some holes that I realized I was missing. And so, I was super thankful for that because they teach you those certain things that you need.”

Even though they build strong bonds over time with the horses they train with, equestrians often have to compete with horses they’ve never met before. Fletcher said it’s just another element of the competition.

“You have to expedite that process like 100 times faster,” Fletcher said. “The point of these competitions and these meets is to be able to prove that you’re a good enough rider to figure out the horse’s intricacies in the four minutes you’re allowed to warm them up, and then you’re set into the competition.

Callaway said she loves getting to compete with different horses because it helps prepare her for the real world.

“That’s how it is if you’re a trainer and someone brings you a horse,” Callaway said. “You don’t know what they’re going to be like or act like or anything like that, and you have to know how to deal with them.”

Baylor equestrian will compete in its first home meet of the season at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Willis Family Equestrian Center. Attendance is limited to close friends and family on the athletes’ pass list due to COVID-19 precautions, but fans can follow along on Baylor equestrian’s social media accounts as well as the Baylor Athletics website.