By Christine Sampson
The soft lighting inside the barn at Swan Creek Farm fell gently on Izzy Culver’s blonde hair and Cabaret’s black mane as the rider and horse shared an affectionate moment on Saturday, belying the focused, analytical competitors they are together inside the ring during a contest.
Izzy, 15, was the Reserve Champion in the Children’s Hunter Horse division two years in a row at the Hampton Classic, and this year’s win at the Classic had the effect of pushing her United States Equestrian Foundation ranking up quite a few notches — from in the 30s to No. 11 out of about 300 young riders regionally. That propelled her into the Foundation’s Zone 2 Northeast Finals during the weekend of October 21 and 22 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to which only the top 16 children in each USEF zone are invited.
It was a competition filled with 3-foot-3-inch jumps and tight corners in an indoor ring. Izzy emerged from the Zone 2 competition with third- and fifth-place ribbons in the “over fences” event, in which she navigated Cabaret through a course with at least ten jumps. She also captured a third place in the “under saddle” event, in which all 16 competitors are in the ring at the same time showing off their horses’ walk, trot and canter. Only the top eight riders in each event receive ribbons.
In an interview, Izzy said she had exceeded her own expectations by placing. Her goal had been to simply make it to the regional competition.
“My goal is really to continue to get better, to see how far we can go,” she said. “Even if we don’t win, I think about how far we’ve gone. Even if I don’t get first place, I think about what I should be proud of — finding the good out of every show.”
Hearing Izzy say that was a “proud momma” moment for Izzy’s mother, Samantha Culver. When she and her husband, Tim Culver, bought five-year-old daughter Izzy pony rides as a gift about 10 years ago, they had no idea the passion they would ignite in their daughter.
“As a parent I’ve seen it build confidence. It’s a stress reducer for her,” Ms. Culver said of her daughter, who is a junior at Pierson Middle-High School and has enrolled in the International Baccalaureate diploma program. “Unlike in other sports, you develop a deep bond with an animal, which is kind of hard to replicate. You get into the ring and do all these jumps — there’s the feeling of you can do anything. For a kid who used to be really shy, it’s been really great.”
To prepare for her competitions, Izzy says she makes a plan ahead of time by studying the ring when she arrives at the venue. Then, she sticks to it. Sometimes, she said, she watches online videos of other people in the rings where she’ll be competing. “You have to check out ‘spooky’ rings that may have a lot of activity, people or decorations,” Izzy said, which can scare a horse.
And of course, it’s about having that close rapport with Cabaret, a nine-year-old Hanovarian mare who Izzy said was a little challenging to train at first.
“It’s a lot about knowing your horse, because if you know your horse you can predict certain situations when you’re in the ring,” Izzy said.
A lot of people may not realize the physical effort that being an equestrian demands, according to Ms. Culver.
“I don’t think people know how physically and mentally challenging this is,” she said. “I think people think it’s all pretty and showy, but there’s a lot of hard work goes into it. Izzy’s been kicked, rolled on, thrown off — some very scary moments.”
Pursuing the Zone 2 invitational meant choosing her equestrian passion over playing varsity soccer this year at Pierson, but she thinks her teammates were understanding about it, and that it was the right decision.
“I didn’t put any pressure on myself to get a ribbon,” Izzy said. “I felt that as long as I made it there, I was fine. Winning the ribbons was pretty exciting. I was definitely over the moon with how it went.”