Buchanan equestrian team to compete in national competition

Published 8:10 am Thursday, March 28, 2019

NILES — On a typical Friday afternoon in Niles, Buchanan High Schooler Riley Ruelle can be found outside a barn with her horse Valentyne – a thoroughbred with a seemingly insatiable desire for nibbling on fresh spring grass.

As the horse grazed, Ruelle, 17, reflected on a recent victory for her equestrian team, Fox Run. Next month, the nine students will get the chance to represent their Berrien County community at a national level. On April 13 and 14, the students will compete in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association Dressage Nationals at Otterbein University in St. Clarisville, Ohio.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Ruelle said. “Not a lot of people around here know about IEA. It feels pretty good to do something I love and represent my city at the same time.”

For Ruelle, who has been riding horses since she was 6 years old, the team gave her an athletic outlet that connected her with youth who also share a passion for riding.

“I just really fell in love with it,” Ruelle said. “As a rider, it’s a lot better [to help you learn] the skills you can’t get [elsewhere].”

One of the most challenging aspects of the upcoming competition is that riders do not get to ride their own horse. Instead, their horse is chosen by drawing from a hat. Competitors have to learn how the horse will respond to their commands and adjust accordingly.

“You just get on and go,” Ruelle said.

During the competition, a judge will evaluate riders based on their movements and ability to guide the horse through multiple tasks. Competitors will also have to think on their feet and take a riding test to demonstrate their skill further. Riders will not know what the test will consist of until the competition.

While competitions help to solidify many of the skills that youth learn in the saddle, Ruelle has also learned a lot from her passion.

From an early age, Ruelle saw how interacting with horses could have a positive impact on people. Ruelle’s grandmother, Donna Southwell, encouraged her involvement in the hobby. Southwell served as the executive director of the Therapeutic Equestrian Center which seeks to help children with disabilities. Growing up around this, Ruelle spent a lot of time surrounded by horses. So, it was only natural that for her sixth birthday, her grandmother got her lessons.

Ruelle’s involvement with Fox Run has done more than feed her passion for horses. It has also inspired a career path. After graduation, she plans to attend an equestrian school in Idaho and study to become a horse dentist.

“[Riding] is something I’ve always loved to do, and I wanted to stay involved with horses,” Ruelle said.

Her passion for horses has been apparent in previous competitions. During Fox Run’s final regular season show in January, Ruelle was recognized with a Sportsmanship award and a scholarship.

“You have to be a rider who sticks out to the judges and is kind to other riders,” Ruelle said. “This is my first Sportsmanship award and my last show [before nationals], so it is kind of a big deal.”

Pulling the purple ribbon from a place in the barn, she displayed it proudly — Valentyne could not help but taste the success, and he reached out to chew on the fabric.

In the coming days, Ruelle said her team would continue to prepare for the competition and anticipates representing their community well.

“I’m looking forward to going out with a bang,” Ruelle said. “And just trying to prove to everybody through all my years of riding IEA that I have learned a lot and having fun with my team.”