Given Quince Orchard High School junior Ellie Duvall’s first interactions with horses, there was no indication the majestic animals would become such an important part of her life.
“I went to private school for kindergarten through second grade and a few of my friends rode horses,” Duvall said. “They’d always have birthday parties with pony rides and I would never participate. I would cry and (refuse) to go near the horses. I think it’s just that they were so huge, with their big teeth and feet and I saw that and didn’t know what would happen if I was on one.”
Understandable, considering horses can weigh more than 2,000 pounds and have minds of their own. But the summer before third grade, Duvall’s mother signed her up for a horseback riding camp so she could spend quality time with the friends she wouldn’t get to see as much once she switched schools. It took some coaxing, but Duvall finally made it onto a horse.
“I didn’t want to do anything at first,” Duvall said. “But once I got on that horse, I loved it. From then on, I’ve loved horses and I’ve loved riding.”
As an eighth grader, Duvall was perusing the Quince Orchard website looking for clubs she might like to join when she came across the Equestrian Club. She was immediately excited by the prospect of being part of a community of likeminded student-athletes, and the chance to represent her school while doing something she loved. But when she arrived for her freshman year, she was told the club’s sponsor had left the school and the group had been inactive. So, at the suggestion of her mother, Duvall set out to get it reinstated.
“I had been one of (Duvall’s) teachers and she knew I was also (interested) in horses and asked if I would sponsor the team and be the coach,” said Quince Orchard horticulture teacher Teddi Bewernitz. “It was hard for me say yes because I have small children and am running the horticulture program but (the team) was very encouraging.”
Bewernitz agreed to help and now, after a 15-year hiatus from horseback riding, she said she’s thankful to Duvall and the Quince Orchard riders for helping to reacquaint her with the equestrian world. In two years, the team has become one of the more prominent public-school programs competing in the Inter-School Horse Show (ISHS) series, which encompasses Maryland, D.C. and Virginia middle and high school equestrians and equestrian teams.
Duvall picked up a first-place ribbon and two second-place prizes en route to leading Quince Orchard to a runner-up finish at the Jan. 19 horse show hosted by Coexist Stables in Mt. Airy. The team, which includes varsity riders Alison Bohlin, Gabby Gamboa, Layla Tucker, Catherine Gilligan and Caroline Green, is ranked No. 8 out of 43 teams listed in the most recent ISHS standings. This season—which also mark’s the league’s 25th anniversary—culminates in the Invitational scheduled for March 29 at NFF Stables in Poolesville.
Riders have eight shows throughout the season to qualify for the Invitational—only those who have accrued 21 points are eligible. With one show left in the regular season, Bewernitz said most, if not all, Quince Orchard’s riders have already qualified for the season-ending competition.
As a non-Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association sport, equestrian team funding comes from student-athletes’ families. While training is done on riders’ own time—they must provide proof they have a personal instructor and are taking lessons—the team meets at school to go over judges’ notes from previous shows and discuss what they can work on with their respective individual coaches.
Since horseback riding is such a niche sport, most of the girls on the Quince Orchard equestrian team, and within the ISHS series, have been training and competing from an early age. Therefore, the level of competition is quite high, Bewernitz said.
ISHS shows begin with two rounds of under saddle, also called the “flat class,” during which riders and their horses must walk, trot and canter around the outside of the ring in both directions, showing good form and control. Those who place, then move on to jumps. The highest scorers essentially look like they’re doing nothing.
But that’s an illusion—in reality, proper horseback riding requires the engagement of just about every muscle group in the body. “You’re guiding and directing a 1,000-pound animal using small or large cues and you have to keep up with the pace you’re setting,” Bewernitz said. “Each horse has a different personality that you have to take into consideration. … There are a lot of life lessons in riding. Just because you’re yelling at your horse, doesn’t mean it understands. Just because you want them to turn right, doesn’t mean they’re going to.”
The Quince Orchard equestrian team was honored to see Principal Beth Thomas at the Jan. 19 show, Duvall said, and hopes that as the program begins to gain more recognition within school walls, interest in horseback riding within the Quince Orchard community will continue to grow.
“Riding has been my thing for a really long time and I wanted to be a part of a team, doing something I love,” Duvall said.
“When the morning announcements mention the equestrian team, people are usually like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ I’ll explain that we ride horses and they’re usually like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know that was a thing, that’s so cool you have a club and do that.’ I feel like if that keeps happening, if people keep asking questions and wanting to learn about it, there are so many opportunities in this area to get involved with riding.”