A Centuries-old Discipline

Drill Club Performing At Fair Turns Riders And Horses Into A Team

August 09, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

Joan Bosmans kiddingly calls it "cheerleading for horses."

Minus the pompoms and school sweaters, but not the pomp of a centuries-old riding discipline known as a drill team and the sweat of preparing for two performance at this year's Howard County Fair, Bosmans will lead 28 riders and their horses into the show ring at the fairgrounds Thursday night.

With a group of all-female riders ranging in age from 8 to 18, and horses ranging from 6 to 35, Bosmans will be celebrating her 25th anniversary with a drill team run by the Maryland 4-H Club through the Spur and Stirrup Club. Bosmans, a riding instructor for more than 30 years, prepares the team from May through October at her Clover Ridge Farm in Clarksville and at Schooley Mill Park.

"When you're riding, you already have two different minds working - you have the horse's mind and yours - so it's a difficult discipline to begin with, you're not always on the same page," Bosmans said one night last week before a practice at the fairgrounds. "In drill team, you have to accommodate the least-experienced rider. Every year, we have somebody who will be in their first year and will be 8 years old just starting with 4-H."

The modern-day drill team is derived from the Middle Ages, where their ancestors were a vital part of an army preparing for an impending battle or used by kings and queens to perform for visiting dignitaries.

"The military would practice doing their maneuvers when they weren't at war," Bosmans said. "They would practice very tight formations, and they would put four [across] in a line."

According to Bosmans, each of the four leaders in the 36-man team had a specific job. The first person was the most experienced, the third was the least. The second person was in charge of keeping the line straight so that an enemy army couldn't penetrate, the third person was in charge of taking the horses out of harm's way when hand-to-hand combat began, the fourth in charge of orchestrating the well-timed turns.

That changed when the legendary Lippizaners were used by the Austrians as equine soldiers.

"They were taught to leap over their opponents and to kick the other riders off [their horses] and to rear and fight with their front feet," Bosmans said .

She smiled.

"Our riders don't do that."

Nor do they have to do what the Canadian Mounted Police forced its riders to do when they messed up a drill team formation.

"They had to do the routines pushing wheelbarrows," Bosmans said.

Bosmans learned how to lead a drill team more than 20 years ago from a Mounty during a weeklong training session at a horse park in Lexington, Ky. Bosmans said she went there shortly after trying her first drill team performance at the opening of Schooley Mill Park.

"I realized I needed more help; I didn't know why I couldn't get some of my maneuvers to work," Bosmans recalled.

It takes Bosmans about an hour to prepare her drill team's routines, which include maneuvers such as making pinwheels, hearts and crosses - all with horses riding at a trot. Then it takes months of preparation to get the riders and horses in sync. Pairing up riders and horses is also part of the trick.

This is Cathy Churilla's first year on drill team, and Bosmans has the 10-year-old from Brookeville riding Frosty, the oldest horse and most experienced drill team performance, going into her 21st year.

Asked if she likes to have an experienced horse under her, Cathy said she likes the old white pony for another reason.

"She's more my size," Cathy says.

Having been riding for 21/2 years, Cathy says that she prefers drill team to other disciplines "because you get to ride with a lot of people, you're not competing against other people. This is more relaxing than a competition, but you don't want to let anyone down."

Ellen Crafton, a 17-year-old from Woodbine, is one of the more experienced riders on this year's team. As one of the two designated leaders, she said, "I have to remember the pattern. I have to make sure everybody's still with us and knows what they're doing."

Bosmans, whose two daughters have been part of the drill team for a few years, said that there is a lot of responsibility involved.

"They have to get the horses completely ready, and when they get here, their responsibilities never end," Bosmans said. "When they're here at the fair, they're not allowed to leave the horses and go up to the Midway. They have to get food brought to them. It's a good lesson for parenthood."

If you go

The Spur and Stirrup 4-H drill team will hold demonstrations at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday at the Howard County Fair, 2210 Fairground Road in West Friendship. Go to howardcountyfair.org.

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