Imagine a basketball team advancing to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament by knocking off higher seeds with just six walk-on players who have to pay their own way. While the analogy may not be perfect, that is essentially what the underdog University of Montana Equestrian Team accomplished last weekend by winning their regional championship.
Unlike other schools in their region, the University of Montana Equestrian Team (UMET), which started 14 years ago and is a member team of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA), is not funded by the school, which means the riders have to raise money just to participate in their events. The riders, some of whom had never even been on a horse before joining the squad, have pooled money for gas, raised money to stay in motels, and even had to overcome one of the worst blizzards to hit Missoula in over a decade. The team also only has seven or eight riders, which means they start each event at a disadvantage against schools with three times as many and have no margin for error. The odds are stacked against these lady Grizzlies, but they have kept defying them.
“This year we had several team members who had never been on a horse before, let alone competed in a recognized show,” head coach Katie Lufkin told Breitbart Sports. “We had riders who had only ever been in a western saddle that decided to try English for the first time. These are more reasons why it’s pretty amazing we got the win this year.”
And they will have to defy those odds again just to get an opportunity to be Cinderellas in the next round.
When other teams win regionals, their tickets to the next round — Zones — are punched. But not for Montana’s team, which, like the Jamaican bobsled before the Winter Olympics, is trying to crowdfund (see their page here) their way to Palo Alto to compete in the Zone Championships April 4-6. They need to raise $4,000 to keep their dreams alive. If they can’t raise the money, the clock will strike midnight.
“Without help this trip will be impossible for us and our championship and the opportunity to compete at a higher level will stop in Montana,” Lufkin said.
In Logan, Utah last weekend, the team made it to the Regional Championships in a region that consists of Montana, Idaho, and Utah and better-funded schools like Montana State and Utah State. After three first-place finishes and wins in individual classes in addition to other top-three placings, Montana ended up tied, which had never happened in the history of the region. Underfunded and undermanned, Montana eventually won by three points, which Lufkin said was an accomplishment that was “so incredible for our team” for a variety of reasons, especially when one considers the team really has no margin for error with only eight riders.
“While this made it easy on my part, picking my point-riders, it set us up with a huge disadvantage. Schools like Montana State and Utah State had at least two riders in every division, with some classes fielding up to four riders from each school,” Lufkin said. “As a coach, it was pretty incredible to see our tiny team hold our own against these larger programs and be able to walk away with the championship.”
Erin Corey, the horse manager, told Breitbart Sports that larger schools have a significant advantage because “even though only one rider’s points count, other riders can take points away as they place higher than others in classes.”
“The math just isn’t on our side,” Corey said.
But last weekend, through grit and determination, Montana’s riders willed the numbers to work for them to send these seven riders to the next stage:
Walk/Trot: Ethan Martin
Walk/Trot/Canter: Jessy Weiss
Novice Flat: Kathryn Tiemessen
Intermediate Flat: Makenzi Hoffman
Open Flat: Erin Corey
Novice Fences: Kyndal Ploski
Open Fences: Rachel Anderson
“All our riders showed consistency and precision in every class they entered. As the weekend wore on, it became clear that we were in a good position to win,” Corey said. “With the pressure on, all our riders came out of the show ring with a smile on their face. Kate Lufkin and I were constantly doing math in our heads, and we actually did the final tally on a napkin, which we saved.”
During March Madness, Corey said that she has “heard so many college basketball players say they couldn’t do it without their teammates” and simply said, “This is not some sports cliche when it comes to our equestrian team.”
But as they keep advancing, their Cinderella story gets more expensive. Lufkin, the head coach, said at Zones, Montana will face schools that are all “partially funded, if not fully funded by their universities, giving them access to resources we couldn’t even imagine getting.”
Those teams won’t have to worry about finding a way to show up, unlike Montana, which has to raise enough money to fly seven riders and Lufkin to Palo Alto and pay for motel rooms and transportation. If they get to Stanford, Lufkin said that competing at the Zone Championships “is going to be an experience” because “our little Montana team” will be “traveling to California to compete against some of the best programs in the nation will be an eye opener for most everyone, especially since most of our riders haven’t ever been to a big show.”
“My advice to all of my riders is to walk into the ring and to perform like you’re in first place. Be happy to be in sunny California. Watch every single class and try to learn something,” she said. “Appreciate the quality of horses that you have the chance to ride and don’t dare be discouraged if you come in last place. With how close our Regional win was this year, every rider knows that it was because of them, and because of their dedication to our team and to this sport, that we are able to even go to California.
Regardless of what happens in Palo Alto if they get there, Montana’s team will still fundraise and raise money just so they can have an opportunity to defend their regional title next year.
Kathryn Tiemessen, another rider on the squad, said going to Zones in Palo Alto “will be one of the highlights of my collegiate and equestrian career.”
“I plan on using this opportunity we’ve been gifted with to learn and observe as much as possible, and ride as well as I can for this team that’s given me so much,” Tiemessen told Breitbart Sports. “We’ve already proven that we’re willing to put in the work, and now it’s time for us to prove our worth on a national stage. With support from our community, I’m confident that we will be able to get there.”
Tiemessen said the squad has a “genuine sense of camaraderie” that comes from having to get sponsors and raise money as a team to compete, the long hours on the road away from home on the weekends, and days when they wake up at 6 AM and practice and compete non-stop until 10 PM. She said it would be “easy to cut corners,” but her teammates don’t.
“They’re always spit-shining someone’s boots before they go into the ring, recording placings for our coach, helping another member do their hair or having a teammate recite their pattern one last time. With only eight team members, everyone has to learn to be self-sufficient, and I’m proud to say that I’ve watched this team do that and still find the time to help each other out,” Tiemessen said. “My teammates constantly surprise me, not just by how hard they work, but how well they ride. Now, I’m incredibly excited to go to Zones, not only to compete, but to experience a horse show of that size and magnitude.”
As of this writing, the team has raised $1,100 of the $4,000 it needs to continue their improbable run. Montana’s equestrian team’s Indiegogo crowdfunding page can be viewed here, and it reads: