Undaunted by the Navy's horseless ways, midshipmen form an equestrian club

No kidding - midshipmen saddling up

January 31, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

In four years at the Naval Academy, Vanessa Solem has borne the brunt of more than few jokes about her favorite pastime: riding horses.

After all, they don't have sea legs, and the Navy never had a cavalry.

But Solem, 26, has had the last laugh as she's held together an unofficial equestrian team that has competed in numerous area equestrian events, even winning occasionally among colleges with more resources and organized teams.

"Some people are a little sarcastic about it, and some people think it's ridiculous," said Solem. "Both the Air Force Academy and West Point have teams that compete, and this could be another service academy rivalry. And I think we could learn a lot about leadership from working with horses."

Whether ambling through high school in northern California, serving as a Navy cryptologist in Florida or Virginia or wending her way as a midshipman, she always found a way to ride horses.

A horse enthusiast and barrel racer since childhood, Solem came to the Naval Academy in 2003 believing she wouldn't ride for at least the first two years, when midshipmen are rarely allowed to change out of their uniforms and can't drive cars.

But her freshman year, when she found out an officer was trying to get a team of midshipmen together to develop a riding club of some kind, she drafted a constitution and bylaws and began recruiting other Mids to participate.

In the years since, although interest has waned and a crunch in funding extracurricular activities has kept the group unofficial, Solem and a handful of other academy students have competed in Intercollegiate Horse Show Association events.

Solem, who will be serving in the warship fleet when she graduates in May, said her motto with horses has always been to "make what's wrong hard, and what's right easy," and that's something that goes for leadership as well. When horses in her care start to buck, she gets louder and runs them around a training pin until they are "more responsive to me."

And as a squad leader in her company leading nearly a dozen Mids, she made sure the plebes in her charge knew their "daily rates" -- memorized facts about the academy, meal offerings or newspaper articles. If she heard they were having any problems, she said, she would "bring more pressure on them," quizzing incessantly and meticulously until they took it upon themselves to "do it on their own."

"I found that they would take their jobs as fourth class seriously," she said.

Initially, in her freshman-year push to put together an equestrian team of sorts, many Mids apparently agreed, with more than 120 expressing interest. But later that year, their application to become an official, academy-sponsored extracurricular activity was denied, and a lot of those initially interested dropped out.

Still, she and others have put up their own money to compete, confronting barriers that other academy activities don't have: difficulty getting time off for practice or events, not being allowed to recruit new members and facing the skepticism of those who don't understand horses.

All those challenges notwithstanding, the group has done well with few riders compared with other colleges, qualifying for nationals in 2005 and most recently, placing second overall in a University of Maryland-hosted event in Prince George's County in September.

Darray Hunt, a Cheyenne, Wyo., native who competes on the varsity crew team in addition to occasional equestrian events, said riding is a much-needed release from the rigors of academy life.

"It breaks up the monotony of all the academy stuff and gets me in touch with my roots," said Hunt, 21, noting that she was "practically born" on a horse. "That was my life. It takes me away sometimes, and I love that. It's therapy, in a way."

Jessica Hunt, 20, a sophomore and crew team member who is not related to Darray Hunt, said riding relieves her stress and makes her imagine a time, after a career as a pilot, when she can buy a ranch and raise horses on it.

"A horse is always good companionship," said the history major. "They will always tell you if you're doing right or doing wrong."

Solem said the group, which rides on a farm in Tracys Landing, will find plenty of applications in the fleet for what they've learned with horses.

"If you can convey to an 1,100-pound animal what you want it to do," she said, "and you don't even speak the same language, you can also communicate with your sailors and Marines."bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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