Ashley Woodhouse is one of a very few college students with grand prix ribbons hanging in her dorm.
The 21-year-old native of Minneapolis, Minn., competes her Belgian Warmblood gelding Pacifico in the high amateur-owner jumper division and grand prix classes at prestigious venues throughout the Midwest and the East Coast, including Florida’s Winter Equestrian Festival.
She frequently finishes in the ribbons, and has come tantalizingly close to a blue with a second place in the $30,000 Country Heir Grand Prix in Lexington, Ky., during 2004.
But during the academic year, she puts her budding grand prix career on the back burner. From September to May, Woodhouse devotes herself to leading the Skidmore College equestrian team. She captured collegiate riding’s highest honor, the coveted USEF/Cacchione Cup, as a sophomore at the 2005 IHSA National Championships.
She did actually select Skidmore, located in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., from her list of prospective schools because of its outstanding instructional riding program rather than its intercollegiate team. As a freshman, Woodhouse decided to try out for the team as a way of making friends in her new environment.
“I was really homesick and wanted to get involved in something. I liked the idea of being on a team–I’d never done that before,” she remembered.
And she made the cut. But even with her extensive competitive experience on the A-rated circuit, she had quite a bit still to learn.
“When she came to Skidmore, she needed to get into good physical shape and to get into an equitation mode. It took her the first year to figure it out,” said coach Cindy Ford, at the helm of Skidmore’s program for the past 14 years.
“I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was, because the jumps were so small and the courses were relatively easy. But I quickly learned that it was nothing at all like I expected,” said Woodhouse.
“You really had to be a rider, and not just look pretty. I had to learn to adjust to different horses, which was something I didn’t have much experience doing. It definitely humbled me!” she added.
Her inaugural semester of showing for Skidmore brought the frustrations of “bad luck, bad draws, and bad ribbons,” Woodhouse wryly recalled.
“Cindy explained to me that it would just take me a little while to get used to it, and I believed her, and I’m glad I stuck with it–but there were definitely a couple of moments where I wondered, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?'” she said with a laugh.
Woodhouse struggled to adjust to the reality that her performance in the ring de-pended largely on the literal luck of the draw.
“So much is completely out of your control–that was really hard for me at first,” said Woodhouse.
Ford’s rigorous training program helped Woodhouse find her way through the foreign terrain of collegiate competition. As varsity athletes, team members consult with a nutritionist, follow a weight-training and fitness regimen, and take extra lessons in addition to their regular practice rides.
The results of this disciplined system speak for themselves; in the past 15 years, Skidmore teams have accounted for five national championship, and countless regional and zone titles.
Woodhouse has been very impressed by the improvement in her own form. “The difference has been amazing, especially on the flat,” she said.
She noted that the team’s dedication has had the added benefit of earning its members the abiding esteem of their classmates. “People understand how hard we work. The team is very well respected,” she said.
Nevertheless, their scholastic priorities are well in order. “Academics come before this team,” stated Woodhouse unequivocally, “the better we do academically, the more the administration supports us.”
Last semester, the team boasted an impressive collective grade-point average of 3.84. Added Ford, “I have so many students that are ‘A’ students. I have to respect the time they need to study and go to class.”
No “I” In Team
After her first year on the team, Woodhouse realized that her perspective on competition had been forever altered. “The ribbons were important to me, but more important were the friends that I made. Just being with them really made me stick with it,” she said.
According to Woodhouse, this camaraderie is the key to Skidmore’s success. “We have to come together and be close if we want to do well. We need the walk-trot riders just as much as we need the open riders. We all live at the barn together!” she said.
Many of the team’s 30 members do actually live together as roommates. Bonding activities such as team dinners and bowling nights further strengthen their sense of solidarity in a typically self-centered sport. Woodhouse particularly appreciates this aspect of team life, especially in light of her own junior years, spent locked in fierce competition with her barnmates. The support and community of the team is “something that I had never really experienced before,” she said.
And Woodhouse is an integral element of that lineup.
Said Ford, “Ashley brings a tremendous work ethic and a huge amount of loyalty and integrity to the team. She sets a great example for everyone, whether they’re open riders or walk-trot riders. She always puts the team’s needs before her personal needs–she’s definitely a team player.”
Ford said that Woodhouse has also blossomed into a formidable competitor, unruffled by the vagaries of fortune for which the IHSA is famous.
“When she walks in that ring, she’s prepared to do her best, she expects to do her best, and she also expects the best out of her horse, rather than the worst. She goes in with a confident, positive attitude–it’s exactly the attitude a winner needs to have,” observed Ford proudly.
She credited assistant trainers Belinda Colgan, Paige Faubel and Karen Hunscher for their contributions to Woodhouse’s career.
Ford rewarded Woodhouse’s whole-hearted devotion to the team by appointing her co-captain last fall. Said Ford, “I don’t usually pick juniors [to be captain], but I certainly picked her. She’s been a great leader. I’m glad I have her again next year.”
Co-captain Lex Harding, 21, a senior exercise-science major, will part ways with Woodhouse when she graduates in May.
“Ashley is a huge driving force behind everything that we do. She’s an amazing rider, and she’s made me a better rider. She’s taught me a lot. She’s a beautiful person, inside and out,” Harding said.
Fortunately, the Skidmore bond survives even graduation. Woodhouse still counts team alumnae Jamie Jansen and Erina Malarkey, now a law student and an event planner, among her mentors, and she regularly consults them for guidance.
“It’s Not A Given”
Ashley Woodhouse’s intercollegiate experiences have transformed her relationship with her sport. “Riding has more of an impact on my life now than it did as a junior,” she noted. “I have a sense of belonging, and I have so many more goals now, especially for the team. Winning means a lot more when you can share it with other people.”
This year, she hopes to see her team win its way up the qualifying ladder through regional and zone competition to the IHSA National Championships in Harrisburg, Pa., in early May. Her goal for herself is to defend her Cacchione Cup title, but characteristically she said, “Winning as a team is my No. 1 priority.”
But Skidmore College coach Cindy Ford cautioned that there are few certainties in intercollegiate showing. While another national bid remains a distinct possibility, “It’s not a given. A mistake or a bad draw could be the end,” warned Ford. She pointed out that simply qualifying for the finals can be as challenging as the competition itself, especially since Skidmore will face other strong teams along the way.
Woodhouse, a business major, plans to go to veterinary school after graduating from Skidmore in a year, and she intends to someday open her own animal clinic.