It’s a damp, cold night outside the dimly lit stock arena south of Yelm, but inside the enthusiasm of more than four dozen high school students is warming the venue.
Those students, most of them young women, are astride horses lined up on both sides of the arena awaiting their turn to practice their equestrian events.
At the arena’s far end, Tira Hancock shouts encouragement and instructions to the riders.
Assembled in the arena is the Eatonville High School Equestrian Team, which at 54 members strong is the largest high school equestrian team in Washington.
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Watching from the arena’s mezzanine are dozens of parents and friends.
This assembly is the fruit of 16 years of dogged work by Hancock, the team’s adviser and coach.
A team that began in 2000 with a single student has grown as the sport has gained popularity both in rural Pierce County and the state.
While the sport doesn’t enjoy the popular appeal of high school football or basketball, more than 1,000 students in Washington and Oregon are members of high school equestrian teams, according to the Washington High School Equestrian Teams organization, the sanctioning body for equestrian competition in the Evergreen State.
The sport is part of the after-school offerings mostly at small-town high schools where students have the space and facilities to raise and train their own steeds. Among those schools with equestrian teams are North Thurston, Toledo, Enumclaw, Tumwater, Camas and Castle Rock.
The sport isn’t one for students without lots of time and money. The training sessions, twice a week or more, are three or four hours long. Team members in most cases must own their own mounts. Some own as many as three horses bred and trained to excel in different events. The high school meets include competition in barrel racing, breakaway roping, dressage, hunt seating over fences and drill team competitions.
Because of the rainy winter weather in the Northwest, the practice sessions ordinarily are held in arenas across the area. The participants or their parents must transport their animals to the practice venues.
Emmalee Hatch, the equestrian team’s president, said the experience has given her a taste of responsibility and accountability.
“I’ve learned respect for those people, parents and coaches who take their time to help us with this important sport,” she said.
Hancock estimates that the cost of participating on the team averages about $2,000 yearly for entrance fees, lodging and other expenses of the three or four-day competitions. That doesn’t include the costs of feeding, housing and training the horses at home. Beyond the team practices and competitions, many team members hire horse trainers to work with them at home, Hancock said.
The team holds a handful of fundraising events from candy sales to auctions to help defray the costs of practicing and participating.
Until this year, Hancock, a lifelong horse enthusiast and a high school teacher, received no pay for her hours of work for the team.
This year, however, Hancock said the school administration fought to give her a stipend. Now she is on par with advisers to the knowledge bowl team, the chess club and so forth.
“We’re lucky to have Tira,” said John Paul Colgan, Eatonville High School principal. “She has worked and climbed for years to make this a success.”
Some of the equestrian sport’s enthusiasts say they think it owes its secondary status to its lack of recognition by the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association, the statewide sanctioning body for high school sports.
“Some of the parents wanted to pursue recognition from the WIAA, but we put that effort aside because we’re not sure the WIAA would understand the competition,” Hancock said.
Caring for the horses, practicing for the competitions and the interacting with other youths develop character among team members, Hancock said.
Heather Padgett of Eatonville, in her fourth year on the team, said the equestrian competition has given her experiences and taught her the value of hard work and dedication to tasks.
The school principal, Colgan, said the team’s activities develop a strong sense of responsibility among the team members.
“This is more than just a few hours of practice a week. It’s cleaning stalls and learning skills and caring for the horses,” he said. “It’s very demanding, and the team members learn to value the products of their work.”
John Gillie: 253-597-8663