Equestrian team a first for UPEI

Students at UPEI can now compete for the school's brand-new equestrian team.

'It's a natural' sport for the university, says varsity co-ordinator

Laura MacDougall, left, owner of Seaglass Stables, with Tessa the horse and UPEI equestrian team founder Olivia Sperling. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

Students at UPEI can now compete for the school's brand-new equestrian team. 

Olivia Sperling spearheaded the creation of a new Equestrian Club and a competitive equestrian team at the university, after coming from Ontario last year and realizing the school had neither.

"Most of the schools at home in Ontario have equestrian teams so when I came out here and learned there wasn't one, I kind of went OK, I'm going to change that," said Sperling, 19, a biology major planning to attend veterinary school. 

Sperling began looking for a riding school to host the team and found Laura MacDougall, who owns nearby Seaglass Stables. A certified Equestrian Canada Competition Coach with about a dozen horses, she's excited to coach the new team.

It's a good family atmosphere for the riders who want to get involved.— Olivia Sperling

"One of our factors in buying this place was knowing that we would be close enough to the school to be able to not only have university students join us and want to be able to ride here, but also with the hopes that at some point we would get a team off the ground," said MacDougall. 

"I found it really important to provide a service for students maybe away from home or away from their own horses, or rode as kids and gave it up. Give them an opportunity to get back into it and follow that passion."

'Part of the Panther family'

Sperling and MacDougall got UPEI's blessing to start the team — it's a club team rather than a varsity team, which means while UPEI will help with things like administration and promotion, it does not help fund the team. UPEI has nine varsity teams including hockey and basketball, as well as eight club teams including curling, tennis and now, equestrian. 

Olivia Sperling brought her horse Tetley with her from Ontario this year. (Submitted by Olivia Sperling)

"It's really exciting," said Ron Annear, the varsity co-ordinator at UPEI Athletics and Recreation. "We are always open to groups of students who are willing to put some time and effort into pulling together in the sport of their choice to get organized." 

"It's a natural" sport for the university, he said, with the Atlantic Veterinary College on campus. 

Sperling is planning some fundraisers and is actively seeking sponsors, but for now students pay $40 to be a club member and $25 per riding lesson at Seaglass Stables, with a minimum of one lesson per month. 

"Financially it's more challenging for us — we're stretched as it is with our varsity sports," said Annear. "But with the club sports, we definitely want to help them make a go of it and support them.... They are part of the Panther family."

Why create a team without funding?

"For the love of the sport," said Sperling. "If you really love something, work for it and you'll get it one day. Here we are a year later, and I have the team that I wanted when I first got here."

There's a league for that

The club set up a booth on UPEI's clubs day, and received a lot of interest from students. It now has about 30 members, from beginners to experienced riders.

Some of UPEI's new Equestrian Club gather in the tack room at Seaglass Stables in North Winsloe to learn about equipment and cuddle the barn's cat. (Submitted by Olivia Sperling)

The team's first competition is Oct. 28 in Nova Scotia, hosted by Dalhousie University at Owls Ridge Farm.  

They'll be up against other teams in the Atlantic Intercollegiate Equestrian League — who knew? — including St. Francis Xavier, Acadia, Dalhousie, and Dalhousie AC (Agricultural College). 

No horse? No problem

Students don't need a horse to compete — they practice riding on MacDougall's school horses. When they go to competitions, they draw from a pool of horses at the host stable. 

When UPEI's riders compete, they can enter classes over fences and on the flat — walking and trotting. (Submitted by Olivia Sperling)

Riding a strange horse can be a challenge for even the most seasoned equestrian.

"It really is a testament to how good of a rider you are if you're willing and can do it successfully," said Sperling. 

The competitions are broken down into classes for beginner and advanced riders. There are classes that include only walking and trotting as well as classes that include jumping over fences of various heights. The league is hunter-type, which means the riders are aiming for a relaxed-looking but energetic smoothness, not speed.

Sperling has been riding since the age of four and loves to show. 

"For me it's never been about ribbons and winning — I just enjoy going out with my friends," said Sperling. "You're all together in the same place and it's so much fun."

'You can make friends and family'

Having an equestrian team at UPEI could help keep horse-loving P.E.I. students on the Island, as well as potentially attracting horse enthusiasts from elsewhere. 

The Equestrian Club at UPEI set up a booth to attract students at the beginning of the school year — they now have more than 30 members. (Submitted by Olivia Sperling)

"To be able to offer horseback riding as a sport is not something that a lot of schools may be able to do," said MacDougall, praising UPEI for its co-operation helping the club get off the ground. 

"It's a good family atmosphere for the riders who want to get involved," enthused Sperling. "It keeps people who enjoy and love the sport together and you can make friends and family in that world too."

UPEI will host its inaugural competition at Seaglass Stables during the 2019-20 school year. 

The team hopes to compete in the league's five or six yearly shows this winter. 

Saint Mary's University is one of six universities in the region that have an equestrian team. (Atlantic Intercollegiate Equestrian League/Facebook)

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About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca