Blake Thompson strolled through the arched entry of Providence Hill Farm’s palatial barn with cool confidence, passing the rows and rows of stalls on his way to greet Ann Skogerboe, the program director of the Mississippi College Equestrian Team. Riding a horse was, somehow, far from his mind.
With a little encouragement, Thompson donned a helmet and was soon astride Boppie, a white and gray thoroughbred in his advanced 20s. He made a couple of laps around the shaded pavilion, and paused for several photo-ops.
Rising from the rolling backwoods hardly twenty minutes north of MC, Providence Hill Farm is the closest thing to Eden one can find in Mississippi.
It is the home of MC’s Equestrian, Sporting Clays, Bass Fishing, and Archery programs, accommodating each with ease on its 1,250 acres. The most notable feature of the farm is its palatial barn, a sprawling Gothic structure of gray stone complete with spires, shimmering windows, and weathervanes with little horses leaping over invisible verticals. It houses the team’s sixteen horses in considerable comfort, fans beat the waning summer heat.
According to Skogerboe and Coach Claudia Billups, the new season is off to a galloping start. The team recently competed in the Mississippi Hunter Jumper Association (MHJA) “Back to School” Show in Brandon and placed within the top three in several events. “The team went with the attitude that they were practicing and improving their competitive skills without any preconceived expectations of winning or not winning,” said Skogerboe, “It enabled them to focus on what Coach Claudia has been working on with them this fall and to understand the reasons behind the methods.”
Billups joined the team in January 2019 and has partnered with Skogerboe, who joined the team in summer 2018, in revamping the team for greater success in MHJA and Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) meets and competitions. While their participation in MHJA confines them to meets and shows within the state, their participation in IHSA takes them 9 to 10 hours westward into eastern and southern Texas. Riders competing in an IHSA meet do not ride a horse they practiced on; on the contrary, they are chosen by random drawing.
Team history will be made when Providence Hill hosts 11 teams from Texas and Louisiana at its first IHSA show Nov. 2 and 3. To date the team hasn’t hosted a show on home turf, and this will hopefully give them a chance to show off not only their riding skills, but also the inspiring place where they practice and cultivate those skills.
To prepare the team, which welcomed seven new riders of varying riding backgrounds, Skogerboe and Billups implemented mandatory workouts. According to Skogerboe, horses are sensitive to a rider’s body symmetry, meaning if one’s right side is stronger, the horse will sense it and pull away to the left. To ensure as perfect balance as possible, team members must attend two workouts a week in the HealthPlex with trainer Brockton Tross, who runs them through a regimen of core workouts including kettlebell weights, deadlifts, and rowing.
When not working on their core, riders participate in practices and clinics with Billups and the occasional guest coach. For instance, Bernie Traurig, who won over 60 show jumping grand prix and competed in eight world cup finals, will teach a clinic on Nov. 15 for the team and on Nov. 16 and 17 for pros, amateurs, and juniors. It’s clear to see the MC Equestrian Team has plenty of opportunities to cultivate and improve their riding talents. According to Skogerboe and Billups, it’s what makes the program unique.
“Few colleges support their team like MC does,” said Skogerboe. “The facility, the training, the support from the college—other programs have to raise all of that on their own.”
That same dedication and personal instruction spills over into the Horsemanship PE credit open to all students. Senior Michaela Wilder compared the once a week class to a private lesson, all because of Billups’s intentional and dedicated coaching.
All sources, spoken and observed, seem to indicate greatness for the program and the equestrian team. To practice and cultivate one’s talent in such an idyllic place as Providence Hill, from such experienced and dedicated people like Skogerboe and Billups, is rare by far.
Thompson, from his steed, said, “The equestrian program is definitely one of the flagship programs of our institution. Everyone should know about this team, and this program, and this college.”
Picture creds: Kyle Hamrick