POULSBO — The April 15 Winter Schooling Show at Sandamar Farm was a test of precision and tenacity, a “dress rehearsal” for equestrian athletes and their horses to help them condition and enhance their skills in preparation for their summer showing events.
Founded almost a quarter-century ago by Julie Gelderman and her husband, today the Sandamar team travels to high-level competitions from Cle Elum to Canada.
Out in the large covered arena, horses and riders executed a series of choreographed jumps and moves as demanding as any Olympic skating competition. Jumps were raised, lowered, moved and removed as riders commanded their horses to walk, trot and canter with grace and precision.
But there was more going on there than just horses jumping over things with people on their backs. Ultimately, it’ was all about learning life lessons about responsibility, teamwork, confidence-building and the value of hard work and discipline.
“My philosophy was I wanted every kid to have the opportunity to at least ride and learn a little bit about horses,” Gelderman said. “The schooling shows are designed to be a learning experience for the students.”
The skills learned while working with horses can be life-altering, she added.
“When you have to take care of something so much bigger than yourself, it teaches responsibility, confidence and respect,” she said. “And that is why we do what we do.”
Naya Patterson, a junior at Kingston High School, entered on her horse, Phoenix Rising. They gracefully cantered the course, changing diagonals and sailing over more than five jumps in the circuit. Afterwards, she sat atop her horse, still elated from their strong showing and breathing heavily.
“A lot of people think it’s the horse doing all the work, but that’s not the case,” she said. “Whatever you feel, the horse feels. And the stronger the bond you have, the better you’ll do.”
Amanda Gelderman-Brant, head trainer at Sandamar agreed.
“It’s that interaction between the two,” she said. “The rider has to be intuitive to their surroundings and listen to the body language of the horse. It’s like speaking without language.”
Gelderman-Brant, who grew up working with her mother, Julie, in the barn, majored in business and equine studies at college and has returned home to run her riding lesson business, Evolution Equestrian, out of the family facility.
In the Walk-trot Open Class, 7-year-old Kira O’Malley, one of the youngest competitors placed first on her horse, Diesel.
As they moved in unison around the ring, they displayed confidence and Diesel responded quickly to Kira’s commands.
“It was fun, and Diesel was a really good boy,” she said. “It actually wasn’t as scary as I thought at first.”
Kira’s mother, Lisa, said all three of her daughters love the sport.
“This builds so much more than a horse-rider bond, it builds confidence,” she said. “Sharing that common interest, it’s something fun they can all do together.”
O’Malley’s oldest daughter, Ava (an 11-year-old rider) finished up the jump course on her horse.
She said her legs were still sore from her lesson the day before. “I get a good workout,” she said.
“I think the bond between a horse and rider is stronger than the bond of man’s best friend,” Patterson said. “You’re physically on the horse, the bond is stronger because, as a team, you’re one.”
Though Patterson says she has a boyfriend, she admits, her horse is her “main dude.”
Throughout the event, jumps were raised, lowered, moved and removed as if by magic. The secret to all of this seamless scenery moving: willing volunteers.
Even for a small schooling show like this one, there were 16 to 20 jumps to move and set up, according to Dennis Miller, one of the volunteers and father of one of the riders. “When your kid rides, you volunteer to help any way you can,” he said. Set-up started at 7:30 a.m. He and other volunteers worked nearly non-stop until 3:30 p.m., when the event ended. A good father, when this event was over, he was headed for Bremerton to watch his son play baseball.
Perhaps the most passionate volunteers was a young horse lover with a long-range goal.
Kathryn Barker was quiet and at times, easy to overlook.
But as the jumps were repositioned, she was where she needed to be, sometimes hoisting four-inch diameter poles twice her height over tall fences.
“This is the closest I’ve been able to get to riding,” she said. “I volunteer [here] whenever they have a show and work the Stepping Stone Barn on weekends.”
She and her parent moved to Kitsap from Columbus, Ohio three-and-one-half years ago. Today she is a senior at Bainbridge Island High School.
While she doesn’t take riding classes due to financial constraints, she said it has become more important to her to keep up her grades so she can get into a good college. Barker has already been offered a full scholarship from Ohio Wesleyan University.
“I hope to ride competitively in college,” she said. “Cross country and three-day eventing.”
In the meantime, she rides recreationally with a friend on the bridle paths in Port Gamble.
She said she hasn’t ridden any of the horses that were competing here today. “I used to feel bad,” she said. “Now my goal is to get into college and get a good job so I can afford horses.”