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Published July 26 2012

North Dakota has become a destination for equestrian

Fargo - Open roads tend to provoke thought.

With Jack Kerouac, the open road resulted in writing one of this nation’s greatest works in, “On the Road.”

Leon Glasser is not Kerouac, but when it comes to how big horses are in North Dakota, he uses the open road to drive home his point.

“Drive from Fargo to Dickinson on the weekend and you’ll see a ton of horse trailers,” said Glasser, who is president of the North Dakota Quarter Horse Racing Association. “It is so huge most people in the state don’t realize it.”

Rodeo events, barrel racing, 4-H, riding and even the recent rebirth of horse racing in Fargo are the tributaries Glasser lists in discussing what makes equestrian popular in this state.

It’s certainly popular nationwide. The United States has won 110 Olympic medals in equestrian, the most of any nation.

Equestrian was enough for Tracy Tschakert of Barnesville, Minn., to risk getting into trouble as a youth.

“I had a paper route and the paper ran a coupon for free horse riding lessons, so I clipped out all the coupons,” Tschakert said. “After eight lessons, they gave me a job. They told me it was supposed to be a one-time thing and couldn’t keep doing this so they gave me a job.”

The love was enough for Tschakert to become one of the area’s premier equestrian specialists. She teaches today’s next crop of riders about the sport with one simple lesson she has learned: If you want to get better, be prepared to work.

Riding like an Olympian

Equestrian at the Olympic level features three categories: dressage, eventing and show jumping.

“I explain it to people that it is like a triathlon but with a horse,” said Fargo resident Kaylin Scarberry, who rides in those categories. “Usually those three events take place over one, two or three days. It just depends on the competition.”

Scarberry said dressage is an event in which judges critique riders on how they can handle and show their horse. It is about seeing if the horse can move freely, pay attention and how a rider can command their horse.

“You do a flatwork pattern, it’s about three to five minutes long and you have to have control,” said Scarberry, who is also a member of the North Dakota State equestrian team. “My horse sometimes doesn’t like to be obedient, so I have to sweet talk my horse.”

Eventing or cross country is a demanding obstacle course predicated on jumps. Riders must complete the course in a specific time and can be penalized for going too slow or fast.

“You can walk through the course as many times as you want, but you don’t get to ride your horse until the actual ride,” she said. “Your horse goes in blind, and as a rider you have to be prepared and plan out where you want to go.”

Show jumping is the third and final event where first place can be won or lost. It is a timed event with a pattern of about eight jumps.

“You need to be as quick as possible,” she said. “The quicker you are without faults or penalties, the better your score will be.”

An Olympic impact

Glasser said depending on the kind of horse a person purchases, owning one is at least a $7,000 investment.

“If they want to get a horse for pleasure riding, you are looking at between $2,500 to $5,000 on a decent horse,” he said. “Then there’s your vet expenses … it is easy to spend $1,000 a year on that. If you are boarding and feeding a horse, you are spending $1,000 to $2,000, and that’s for a single horse.”

Those prices only increase for riders trying to become Olympic hopefuls. But as Tschakert explains, that’s sometimes the beauty and misery of equestrian as an Olympic sport.

Tschakert, 40, said equestrian is a different breed of Olympic sport where older competitors benefit. The oldest competitor in this year’s Olympics is Japan’s Hiroshi Hoketsu, the 71-year-old who made his Olympic debut in equestrian back in 1964.

“That’s really cool,” Tschakert said of Hoketsu. “It takes a lifetime to get really good at it. Expertise does come at such a high cost.”

Addressing stereotypes

At 15 years old, Haley Rampelberg of Fargo is already swept up in the bond between rider and horse. She says a rider is dealing with another living organism that has feelings and emotions.

That’s why she gets a little annoyed when people tell her equestrian isn’t a “real sport” or an “Olympic sport.”

“They say our sport doesn’t take work, but it does,” said Rampelberg, who also plays soccer and volleyball. “Say I am a cyclist. I wouldn’t have to depend on my bike but depend on my partner and need him to be there for me. Horses are the same way.”

Given its high costs, exclusivity and attire required for riders, the sport is often seen for aristocrats. It is another reason why this specific style of equestrian is sparse in North Dakota.

Equestrian’s image did get a bit of a boost thanks to comedian Stephen Colbert.

Colbert, whose show “The Colbert Report” is intended to be a faux political program for comedic purposes, recently talked about Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. He pointed out how Romney and his wife, Ann, own a horse which did qualify for the Olympics.

It led to Colbert pulling out a Budweiser and a red foam finger and then declaring his support for the Romneys’ horse.

The United States Equestrian Federation responded at a recent event, giving out 500 foam fingers and making a video about it. Among those with a foam finger was Ann Romney.

“I’ve talked to people who don’t think it is an Olympic sport,” said Scarberry, who was once told by a Shanley High School gym teacher that equestrian was not a sport. “I tell them we have to work as hard as swimmers, if not harder. When Michael Phelps has to work with a 1,000-pound animal to jump over fences, we can talk. I think doing that can be more difficult than jumping off a diving board.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan S. Clark at (701) 241-5548.

Clark’s Force blog can be found at slightlychilled.areavoices.com