CARLOCK — Two hundred riders and horses will take part in the Hunter Oaks Horse Trials at Hunter Oaks Equestrian Center near Carlock Friday through July 24.
Known as eventing, the competition has its roots in U.S. Cavalry training. With three separate phases requiring intense training and endurance, the sport is sometimes referred to as “a horse triathlon,” said Michelle Mercier, 18, an intermediate eventing rider.
Mercier, daughter of Tom and Sandy Mercier, who own Hunter Oaks, called dressage — the first event — a cross between equestrian ballet and figure skating. It’s a series of movements designed to test the bond between rider and horse. The horse responds to signals from the rider that are so subtle observers are hard-pressed to see them, she said.
“It should be seamless,” said Lisa Slater, 47, a volunteer staff member for the event who’s ridden horses since she was 11.
The cross-country phase requires horse and rider to travel over rough terrain and maneuver over obstacles including water, ditches and banks on Hunter Oaks’ 150 acres in the Mackinaw River Valley. Riders and horses jump wide fences at very fast speeds. Olympic rider John Williams designed the Hunter Oaks course.
“This is definitely the best part,” said Mercier. “You have to be completely in sync with your horse.”
“It’s the adrenaline rush, riding terrain and jumping fences,” added Slater. “A lot of fitness is needed. That’s always very exciting to watch.”
The final event is show jumping, also known as stadium competition. A rider takes a horse through a series of jumps over rails and obstacles in an arena.
“Your horse is tired. Tap a rail and it falls,” Slater said.
The horses are usually geldings or mares and thoroughbred or thoroughbred crosses because of the breed’s athleticism.
Riders range in age.
“There was a gentleman competing into his late 70s. There is not a cutoff date. Usually kids get started at age 9, but they have lessons as young as 6,” Slater said.
Mercier grew up with horses. Her mom and dad actually met at Hunter Oaks when the facility was owned by someone else. They both went there to learn to ride. They bought the stable when Michelle was 4 or 5. She started riding at age 6 and competing at age 10.
“The biggest thing is it’s never too late to start riding. You are never too young, never too old,” she said.
Training is intense. Mercier took her horse, Sir Malcolm, to Florida where she just completed her freshman year in college studying English, education and business management. She attended classes Monday through Wednesday and then horse and rider drove more than three hours to train with her coach or compete on weekends.
Slater was 11 and living in the Chicago suburbs when she started to take riding lessons.
“I just always loved horses,” she said. “I thought, ‘Gee, I like this. I want to do this all the time.’”
She focused on English-style riding, which uses a small saddle similar to what jockeys ride rather than the bulky western-style saddles that feature large saddle horns.
“It’s the feeling that you have when you’re riding and you’re outside and the wind is blowing and you have this magnificent animal working in unison with you. They will do anything for you. It’s amazing,” Slater said. “There is this exhilaration and a feeling of life.”
Mercier, who competed in Georgia and Canada earlier this summer, enjoys the bond she shares with her horse.
“Even if you’ve had a bad day, the horse will put a smile on your face. You have to come out and try it to understand,” she said.