In a quiet arena, 1100 pounds of muscle and flesh sailed through the air. First-year Sage Crandall sat on the animal's back in a perfect marriage of horse and rider.
"One more time!" first-year Sage Crandall yelled.
Sage and her horse Excel, an off-the-track Thoroughbred, leapt over a set of five jumps, hooves thundering in the dirt. On the last jump, Excel knocked a rail from its cup, and it landed in the dust with a resounding thud. Kay Johnson, Crandall's best friend, followed through the line of jumps on her horse Quasar, a gigantic powerhouse standing at 17.2 hands, or 5'10" from the ground to his withers.
Cynthia Spracklin, barn manager and owner of Smoke Stables, and Susan Johnson, Kay's mom, quietly stepped in and put the rails back in their cups. They watched the girls ride on folding chairs in the corner, quietly murmuring over barn news. Once they started jumping, Johnson and Spracklin migrated to the middle of the arena, ready at a moment's notice to pick up a dropped rail.
Crandall drives out to Smoke Stables, which is about 15 minutes away by car, every day. She works her horse every day. She rides every day. Crandall balances Excel and her studies as a biology/pre-medical major through careful time management and dedication. Watching Sage and Johnson ride, Spracklin said owning and showing a horse while being a student takes a person that is very driven, and Crandall is that person.
"Sage is dedicated. She's just committed and dedicated," Spracklin said.
Of course, if she has to miss a day or two for an exam or lab, Crandall knows Excel is in good hands and will be taken care of. Kay rides or lunges her horse when need be, or vice versa.
"School comes before the horses," Crandall said.
The barn offers her a break from school work and something to focus on other than studying.
"Everyone needs a break from schoolwork at times, and homework and studying, so mine just happens to be my horse," Crandall said.
And mistakes in her riding are not as detrimental as say, a failed test. If she knocks a rail, it doesn't matter. If she has a bad lesson, she will have another lesson next time.
"If I have a bad lesson, it's not the end of the world," Crandall said.
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She has had a lot of practice managing her time between horses and school. Crandall grew up on a small horse farm in Medina, Ohio, and has been around horses her entire life. She started out riding her parent's trail horses, and showed in 4-H and other smaller shows growing up. In high school, she juggled AP classes, violin, 4-H, the US Pony Club, a job and taking care of several horses. She bought Excel in 2011, after he had been off the race track a few months. Ever since she has been learning and growing as a rider and person with Excel.
Kay Johnson, a senior at Lakota West, and first-year Sage Crandall met last fall when Sage first came to the barn. Crandall boards Excel at Smoke's Stable Equestrian Center, located in between Hamilton and Oxford. Johnson admits she was wary of a new girl joining her at the barn, since she is friends with Jessica Spracklin, Cynthia's daughter. Spracklin is currently in Florida as a working student. The girls clicked after they went to dinner and became friends.
"And now it's like we've known you forever," Kay said, laughing.
The two support each other and give each other motivation to ride, especially on cold days. If one or the other has an especially busy week and cannot make it to the barn, they will ride each other's horses. In fact, Crandall enjoys riding other horses because it gives her good experience. Crandall even stayed at Johnson's house for three weeks over the winter term so she could ride.
The barn provides Crandall with a sense of community because she enjoys being among people that she has something in common with. On a Friday or Saturday night, Crandall and Johnson are in the arena trotting over poles or leaping over jumps, in what Sage calls "polemageddon," or going over poles on the ground to improve the horse's' agility and footwork. Sometimes, Susan Johnson and Spracklin will bring food to these night rides, a little community made up of horses and their people.
"There's a good group of people in the barn," Spracklin said.
And not all friends are human. Most importantly, Excel provides her with comfort and companionship.
"It's kind of like having part of your family with you," Crandall said.
With Excel she does eventing, a three day competition that combines three disciplines: dressage, cross country, and showjumping. Cross country is a long race in which riders jump over solid jumps and natural obstacles, while show jumping is done in an arena with collapsible jumps. Crandall also shows dressage, a discipline in which horse and rider are judged on their ability to perform maneuvers, on Miami University's Equestrian team.
Susan Johnson said eventing is a tight-knit sport in which competitors help each other and share a common bond.
The girls put back the jumps and poles beside the arena after they had put away their horses. While they hauled poles and standards, they bantered and laughed, talking about plans for the future. Both want to be horse veterinarians. With the last pole put away, the two friends walked into the chilly February night. Crandall called out to Johnson before she climbed into her truck.
"See you tomorrow!" Just another day at the barn came to a close as Sage shut her car door.