My mom used to joke that my horse was the best boyfriend I could ever have and that the expense was worth it if it kept me away from real high school boys. Honestly, 19 years later, there is nothing I look more fondly back on than my high school equestrian team days. What could possible be better than spending the weekend in a barn surrounded by horse-loving friends? It teaches hard work, discipline, dedication, team work and how to bounce back when things don’t go the way you want them to (which happens a lot when your partner is a 1,000-pound horse) This year, come out and watch the local high school athletes, learn about the Washington High School Equestrian Teams (WAHSET) at the Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds, and maybe even let your kid join. It’s something they will never forget (and owning a horse is not required!).

WAHSET District 6 Sierra Breeze 3
Many of the disciplines are team related, which requires even more skill and cooperation from the high school athletes and their equine partners. Photo credit: Sierra Breeze

In 1993, the first Oregon High School Equestrian Team (OHSET) was formed in Southern Oregon. Started with help from the Oregon Horseman’s Association, the idea was to create a program where high school equestrians could compete against each other inter-scholastically, just like any other high school sport or club. The idea caught like wildfire, and spread quickly through the state, with each passing year more schools starting a team.

By 2000, Washington State high schoolers had heard about the program and were excited to be a part of it. During the 2000/2001 school year, high schoolers from River Ridge, Tumwater and Battle Ground high schools joined OHSET as a cooperative team with the Willamette District. More athletes from other schools joined each year. By 2005/2006, WAHSET came to be with three districts of its own, totaling 26 schools and 300 high school equestrian team members.

Fast forward to today, and there are over 700 WAHSET athletes in 7 Districts – 5 on the westside of the state and 2 in the east, according to Jolene Johnson, District 3 chair. District 3 consists of 100 athletes from Battleground, Camas, Enumclaw, Kelso, North Thurston and Woodland.

“I think WAHSET is important to high school kids because a majority of the kids really don’t do other sports in school and this gives them a chance to feel like they can contribute to the school being either though a club or sport,” explains Johnson. “They can also letter in WAHSET through the school. Each team/school has a guideline for them to meet just like a sports team. Being able to get a school letter to put on a college application or just feel accomplished with school recognition is very important to a lot of high school kids, especially if they can’t do any regular school sports.”

Many of the high schoolers started out in 4-H, and continue to do both through high school. “A lot of kids do both – so that keeps them riding and competitive all year long,” says Gerda Stafford, District 6 chair. “However, some kids play other sports and use the off-season for their other interests. There are also some that do junior rodeo.” District 6 has around 115 athletes this year from Elma, Hazen, Hockinson, Tumwater, Washougal and W.F. West.

WAHSET District 3 Woodland High School Jolene Johnson 6
WAHSET teaches sportmanship, teamwork and perseverance when things don’t go your way. Photo credit: Jolene Johnson

While 4-H is an amazing program, WAHSET provides more opportunities in terms of riding disciplines and events. And because the school introduces them to it, Johnson explains, they do get kids that have not done 4-H that are excited to try a riding team.

WAHSET participants spend hours a week practicing on their own and with their teammates for team events such as drill, working pairs, In Hand Obstacle Relay (known as IHOR), team penning and Canadian flags. “The WAHSET organization has been a gift to our athletes, promoting not only good horsemanship and competition, but holds teamwork and good sportsmanship as one of its highest priorities,” shares Heather Brix, District 4 chair. “Athletes work extremely hard for many hours in less than stellar conditions with 1,000-pound animals that have almost as many good and bad days as we humans do.” District 4 currently has 93 riders from Evergreen United, Montesano, North River, Port Angeles, Prairie, Ridgefield, Rochester, Sequim and South Kitsap.

My high school equestrian team was my family. I remember swapping horses with other girls if their horse turned up lame the day of a meet, or letting teammates borrow one of family horses so they could be on the drill team. “They learn how to care for another athlete and many of these kids are shy, quiet kids that learn to find their inner strength and their inner voice,” shares Stafford. “In District 6, we are one big family. If a rider’s horse gets injured, we do what we can to get them a horse to ride – no matter what team they are on. These kids genuinely root for one another and show probably the best sportsmanship I have ever seen.”

Unlike most other high school organizations, WAHSET is run by a lot of outside volunteers, parents and friends. “We do not receive monetary support from the schools so we also rely heavily on the support of our local businesses and community for help and without this, WAHSET would not be available to our high school students,” says Brix.

WAHSET District 3 Woodland High School Jolene Johnson 7
Come watch WAHSET at the Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds and support these hard-working, dedicated youth. Photo credit: Jolene Johnson

And, as mentioned, you don’t need to own your own horse. All of the District Chairs explained that many kids lease or borrow horses from riding schools and private parties. “For those instances where they don’t have their own and/or don’t have any sort of ability to have their own, WAHSET allows athletes to join as non-compete participants,” adds Brix. Trust us, spending the day outside, with the smell of horse and leather, can be just as fun out of the saddle as in.

This year, come out and support the WAHSET athletes and their equine partners as they compete at the Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds. With everything from elegant dressage, driving and hunt seat to the exciting gaming events and crowd-pleasing drills, it’s an exciting event to watch whether you own a horse or not. WAHSET meets run Thursday-Sunday from approximately 7:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m., daily.

2020 WAHSET Competition Schedule at the Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds

  • February 13-16 WAHSET District 3 Equestrian Meet
  • February 20-23 WAHSET District 2 Equestrian Meet
  • March 12-15 WAHSET District 3 Equestrian Meet
  • April 16-19 WAHSET District 2 Equestrian Meet
  • April 23-26 WAHSET District 3 Equestrian Meet

For more information about getting involved in WAHSET, visit the Washington High School Equestrian Team website.

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