May 05, 2024

Auburn University Rides Away With Fourth USEA Intercollegiate Eventing National Championship

USEA/Meagan DeLisle photo

Aiken, S.C.—May 5—After an action packed Saturday at Stable View on the opening day of the 8th Annual USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championship, the podium was up for grabs heading into the final day of competition. The stage was set for an unforgettable showdown between the 18 universities and colleges who were entered.

Auburn University’s War Eagle team, which consisted of Lara Roberts, Hayden Wathen, Sophia Hand, and Alayna Backel, was sitting in first coming off of an impressive first day of competition, wowing the judges after dressage and jumping clear in their second phases Saturday afternoon.

The four riders had their eyes on the prize and buckled down on Sunday to ride away with their school’s fourth USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championship title (2018, 2019, 2022) after finishing the competition with all riders jumping double clear.

Lara Roberts and Fernhill Show Biz. Christine Quinn for Liz Crawley Photography photo.

With the lowest dressage score of the team (21.0), Roberts rode Fernhill Show Biz (Good Fellow VDL x Tilandra), an 8-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding she’s owned for four years, in the Novice division. She was on the second place team last year at the USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championship and worked hard to come back even better this year.

“This weekend is so awesome and my horse is very special,” said Roberts, who is a junior studying marketing and biology. “Unfortunately last spring, he had an injury right after the championship and this weekend is actually his first event back from that. He was just absolutely phenomenal this weekend. Also, I love coming to this event, because we're really lucky to have this opportunity to compete as a team.”

Against the backdrop of the rolling hills of Stable View, Hayden Wathen was the first rider of the team to compete on Sunday and she charged fearlessly through the Intermediate division cross-country course on her 17-year-old Oldenburg gelding, Contestor (Contengo x Jer’s Princess). The pair was sitting on their dressage score of 31.6 and a double clear show jumping round from Saturday.

Hayden Wathen and Contestor. USEA/Annan Hepner photo

“I’m very emotional and my horse was incredible! This is actually the first time I’ve ever finished on my dressage score at this level, so it was already a pretty amazing day before we even won the team championship,” Wathen said. “We were so close last year and came second so to get the win this year with these awesome people is very special. We knew we had really awesome teams that were capable of coming here to win, but everyone performed their best.”

Wathen is a sophomore studying biomedical sciences and pre-med, and Contestor has been her partner for her first Training up to her first three-star.

“We are actually planning on moving up to Advanced in the fall because he feels better than ever,” Wathen continued. “His biggest strength is cross-country and it’s the best feeling in the entire world. He’s so confident in himself. He is on it from start to finish. Show jumping is typically a weakness for us and the fact we went clear yesterday in show jumping was honestly like the most unreal thing ever.”

Sophia Hand and Fernhill The Wild Card. USEA/Annan Hepner photo

Two of the team’s riders were in the Beginner Novice division. Sophia Hand, a freshman studying business marketing and animal science, was unaware that her round was going to make or break Auburn University’s chance of the title before she cantered into the ring for her show jumping phase. Hand was coming into her final phase sitting on a score 31.6 from dressage and a double clear cross country round on her 6-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding, Fernhill The Wild Card (Classiebawn Hughs Promise x Turraun Clover).

“We were definitely really nervous watching Sophia’s round, and I was turned around for most of her ride because I was too nervous to watch,” said Roberts, who is a junior studying marketing and biology. “We didn’t tell Sophia that it was up to her round because we know her so well and knew that she rides better without knowing the pressure. When she came out of the ring she was confused why we were all so excited and we told her ‘You brought home the win for us!’” It was a really special moment!”

“Winning is definitely surreal and honestly, I'm really thankful my teammates didn’t tell me that it all came down to my round,” Hand said. “I’m just so happy I could do that as a freshman for the team. I couldn’t be happier and this weekend has been so fun cheering everyone on. It’s the reason why I chose to go to Auburn and be a part of one of the best eventing teams in the country. We only just received a bit of club funding this year and everyone on the team has worked so hard to make it to this championship.”

The final rider of the Auburn University War Eagles, Alayna Backel, heard her teammates' excitement after Hand’s clear round and she knew her performance was icing on the cake if she could lay down a clean performance on the 10-year-old Mustang mare Lakota. Backel, a junior studying business and animal science, has ridden on the team for three years and is currently serving as vice president before she becomes president her senior year.

Alayna Backel and Lakota. USEA/Annan Hepner photo

“It feels surreal to win the championship,” said Backel, a junior studying business and animal science. “It is so awesome to have a group of people that love the same sport and want each other to succeed. Teamwork is the most important thing and without it we couldn’t have been successful this weekend. Coming to college and finding a group of friends that help every step of the way makes everything so much better. It means so much to hear them cheer from the sidelines.”

Backel was actually a member of Auburn University’s winning team in 2022 and she was studying abroad last year so she missed the championship in North Carolina. This year, she returned to the championship on a horse she’s only ridden for about two weeks.

“I’ve only ridden her a handful of times and I cross-country schooled once before coming here,” Backel said. “Cross-country was definitely our best phase– she was very keen to everything and was very game.”

Right on Auburn’s heels with less than .5 separating them was University of Kentucky’s Big Blue team, made up of Natasha Quirk, Katie Mendes, Alyson Roy, and Kate Bickerstaff, who took home the reserve championship.

Rounding out the podium was Virginia Tech’s Hokie Hustlers which was made up of Jillian Newman, Mandolin Whitten, Rose Schild, and Emma Oldenburg.

Randolph Macon brought the spirit to this year's USEA Intercollegiate Championship. USEA/Annan Hepner photo

Randolph Macon College received the 2024 Intercollegiate Spirit Award based on a culmination of team spirit, stall decor, and results from the hobby horse, mechanical bull, and window decorating competitions.

“We came into the championship with our main goal of winning the spirit award, so we are very excited!” said Julia Gates, the president of the Randolph Macon College Eventing team. “We have an incredible team, and I wouldn't want to do this with any other team. We've been talking about this championship since the beginning of the school year in the fall, so there’s been a lot of anticipation and excitement to be here.”

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About the USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Program

The USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Program was established in 2014 to provide a framework within which eventing teams and individual competitors could flourish at universities and colleges across the country. The USEA offers a discount of $25 on annual USEA memberships for current students at universities and colleges registered as Affiliates with the USEA. Many events across the country offer Intercollegiate Team Challenges where collegiate eventers can compete individually or on teams with their fellow students. In Intercollegiate Team Challenges, each rider’s score is multiplied by a coefficient appropriate for their level to account for differences in level difficulty, and then the individual scores are added together to determine the team score. The USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championship is a capstone event for the program, which is held annually in the spring. The 2024 USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championship will be held at Stable View in Aiken, South Carolina, on May 4-5. Click here to learn more about the Intercollegiate Eventing Program.

The USEA would like to thank Bates Saddles, Horse & Country, Kerrits, U.S. Equestrian, WeRideTogether, and World Equestrian Brands for sponsoring the USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Program.

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