Winding through barren April wheat fields, my 4Runner rumbles down a gravel backroad heading toward the small farming town of Colton. Rounding the corner, I spot a sign for the Pat Weber ranch and follow their lane to the barn.
Near the corral, a young woman in a riding helmet turns and waves. Michelle Gordon, Washington State University junior and president of the recently revived WSU Equestrian Team, is here along with several other students for lessons with English riding coach Laura Bagby Moore ’08.
“I’ve known Laura most of my life,” says Gordon as she brushes a bay gelding named Mac. “We’re both from Woodinville and I grew up riding at Gold Creek Equestrian Center,” then owned by Moore’s parents, Jim and Mary ’77 Bagby.
“I knew I wanted to come to WSU because of the equestrian team,” she says. “When I joined, I was excited to find Laura was one of the coaches. It made me feel very comfortable.”
Gordon leans down to inspect Mac’s hooves, picking out debris that releases the pungent smell of manure. Then she disappears into the tack room to grab a saddle.
Tethered to the side, a gray Arabian gelding has been eyeing me with curiosity. Edging closer, his muzzle cautiously reaches toward my hands, gently grabbing a finger and then my pen. His coat holds a soft unmistakable scent and I’m reminded how easy it is for humans to bond with horses. The highly sensitive herd animals are attuned to human emotion and quick to establish relationships.
It’s a relationship WSU has celebrated since its founding in 1890. From the early days, when agriculture and veterinary programs were geared toward draft horses, to the more recent interest in light breeds for rodeo, shows, or racing, horses have always had a prominent place on the Pullman campus.
Nowhere are they embraced with more passion than in the WSU Equestrian Club, which was originally established after the construction of Hilltop Stables in 1946.
Much of the early history is preserved in the WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections. According to “The Life and Legacy of M.E. Ensminger,” Hilltop Stables offered classes in horsemanship, production, and equitation. It also claimed one of the best horse breeding programs in the Northwest, with a herd of several leading stallions and at least 100 mares.
At its height in the 1950s, wrote Ensminger, Hilltop Stables was regarded as the finest light horse establishment at any American college.
The Equestrian Club took full advantage of the facility, boasting a National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team that attracted as many as 1,500 spectators during their annual events held from the late 1960s until the early 1990s.
The club also included a drill team and large horse show team, which sponsored competitions drawing more than 600 entries.
The club lost its fervor in 2004, however, when Hilltop Stables was sold to make way for the construction of apartments. Though diehard members fought to keep it going, the once-booming team languished for nearly a decade.
BACK AT the Weber ranch, Coach Moore puts students through their paces as they jog their horses in a covered arena. She calls out encouragement in a running musical cadence.
“Toes out, hands up for longer arms. Lovely! Forward and bend. Open that outside rein. Let energy flow forward. Good, good.”
Moore first joined the equestrian team as a freshman in 2004 and surprised herself by qualifying for regional shows and eventually taking fourth in the nationals. It wasn’t long before she began coaching the team, which she continued until graduation.
In 2012, after a stint in Seattle, Moore returned to the Palouse to find the club disbanded. She spoke with student Shelby Westmoreland ’16, and the two decided to resurrect it. Since WSU no longer had stables or an arena, that meant finding horses to lease and a barn willing to board them. They also had to register with University Recreation.
Establishing a university-sanctioned sports club is not a simple task, says DJ Mackie ’12, ’16 MA, equestrian team advisor and coordinator of Competitive Sports & Youth Programs at University Recreation.
Prospective members must submit a proposal to the WSU Sport Club Federation which decides whether or not to add the club to the roster. The process involves a rigorous review of potential risks, something that is especially important for off-campus clubs, he says.
Moore admits she and Westmoreland struggled through the demanding process.
“Shelby got information and talked to the administration. They were really skeptical in the beginning—worried about liability. It was a big step to overcome and get the team accepted.
“Once we were approved, I arranged logistics and partially funded the team for the first year,” says Moore. “I leased horses from different people and we started at Paradise Stables in Moscow with 15–20 members.”
After the team demonstrated viability, the University kicked in an allocation the second year. Those funds, together with club dues and private donations, help support the program. Costs aren’t cheap—horse boarding alone runs from $110–350 per horse per month.
“The club took off in 2012 and has been huge ever since,” says Mackie. “There’s tons of interest—we get emails saying they want to ride again or just be around horses. Most semesters we have close to 40 members depending on how big the stable is and how many horses we can lease.”
Today, Moore coaches the team in an English style called hunt seat, which includes show jumping. The team also has Western style coaches, and the students, who vary in their experience from beginner to advanced, can choose to ride either style. The team travels to about ten shows each season where they compete as a member of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA).
Gordon says she’s looking forward to upcoming competition, including their own show scheduled for late October.
“Last year, it was held at the Colfax fairgrounds and we hosted six other universities from our region of IHSA,” she says. “We usually need about 35 donated horses to make it possible. It’s always a tough job to find that many but we are so incredibly grateful for everyone who has donated!”
Moore says she is confident that this year’s team has the motivation and perseverance to make it all the way to nationals.
“It’s possible—we have some work to do but this is a good group of girls.”