The Horse Champion
“It’s not all about getting a ribbon. It’s about whether you’ve improved from last time,” says Brittany Bridges, a junior at Campbell University and one of the state’s best equestrian riders.
Brittany Bridges, a junior at Campbell University, knows that some people think she just sits on a horse as she competes in the equestrian sport of eventing. Some have told her so. “But no, that’s not what I do at all; it’s much more than that,” said the Sanford native, who is considered to be among the best equestrian riders in North Carolina. “When people say that, I usually show them a video of what I do or talk about the jumping. Once that happens, they’re usually in awe and eager to see more.”
Bridges started riding when she was 7 after her mother signed her up for a summer camp. “I had never been good at any other sport. But horses, I just got it. It came naturally,” she said. “It’s my thing.”
In 2007, when a sophomore at Lee County High School, Bridges got Hampton, an Irish sport horse who competes under his registered name Derrymor. Every year since then, the two have been named the U.S. Eventing Association’s and the N.C. Dressage and Combined Training Association’s Horse of the Year in whichever division they have competed in. For the 2012 competition season so far, the USEA awarded her a “Blue Ribbon Award” for placing first, second or third at three events.
Bridges competes in an event about once a month during the meat of her season, which is the fall and spring. In early October, she and Hampton finished seventh out of more than 40 competitors at the USEA’s Morven Park Fall Horse Trials in Leesburg, Va., which included riders who had just returned from the London Games. She has finished as high at second at an international show that has included Olympic riders.
Bridges, a social work major, spoke to Campbell.edu about her sport, her horse and her goals. The following is an edited transcript.
Describe your sport, eventing.
There are three phases to eventing. The first is dressage, a kind of a dancing that horses do. You’re in front of a judge in a ring that has letters around it. You do a different movement at each letter, and the judge scores you on each movement between 1 and 10.
A second phase is cross country, which is riding in a field, through the woods, and maneuvering ditches, water and other natural obstacles. You have to do it in a certain amount of time. It tests your relationship with the horse and the horse’s endurance.
And then there is show jumping. This is where the horse jumps over poles set to a specific height and width in a ring. If the horse knocks over the pole while jumping, you get penalized.
What does it take to win a competition?
You want to start with a low dressage score. For dressage, I typically score around 30. The lowest score I’ve gotten is a 27, which is really good. You don’t typically get below a 24. Dressage is always the first phase you do. So you start with your dressage score, and then you get points added on for each penalty you get in cross country and show jumping.
It’s never over until the very end. There have been times when I’ve moved up from 13 to first on the last phase. You have to have a horse that is good in all three phases. You may have a horse that is strong in one area, but if you’re not good in all three, you won’t finish strong.
Being strong in all three phases takes an enormous amount of training. That involves not only riding Hampton often enough, but also training with my coach, Karen Mahaffey, at Erin Lea Farm about once a week or once every other week. Karen makes sure I’m prepared for every competition. There are some competitors who get to a competition, check out their courses and get scared or anxious. I can honestly say I’ve never felt that because Karen would never let me go to a show if I didn’t feel prepared. I’m grateful that she takes time to make sure I’m ready for every competition.
How did you build that with Hampton?
I usually practice a lot of dressage, because in dressage, my horse has to understand what my legs are telling him to do, and that plays a big part in jumping. You don’t just gallop as fast as you can up to every jump. There are certain jumps that you have to respect more and you have to slow down and angle some. If the horse doesn’t understand what you’re trying to communicate with him, which is what dressage is mostly about, then he won’t understand what you’re trying to tell him when you’re jumping. It’s about building a strong relationship with the horse.
Why is that?
Seeing him nearly every day is a big part of it. I used to always come in the pasture with a treat. He figured out when he’d see me that I’d have a treat with me, and he’d come to the gate. Now, when he sees my car pulling in, he’ll come to the gate. Horses learn by repetition, so I try to be consistent, give him treats, love on him, give him attention and ride him nearly every day.
A relationship with a 1,300-pound animal—that’s kind of cool. He didn’t know anything before I got him, and I brought him this far. He has taught me a lot, too.
I’ve been taking care of horses for 13 years. I’ve learned how to be responsible and how to manage my time. When I was in high school, I rode six days a week, I worked at the barn, and I still made time for friends and social events. Sometimes I didn’t feel like I had a minute to breathe, but I did it. And college is all about time management.
I’ve also learned about sportsmanship and dedication. It’s not all about getting a ribbon. It’s about whether you’ve improved from last time. You may not have improved in all three phases of the show, but if there was one thing you needed to work on and you improve in that area, that’s a good weekend.
What are your long-term goals in the sport?
To compete at the Olympics. And when I say long-term, I mean long, long term. I don’t know if Hampton will take me there. And that would be a whole other thing—building a relationship with a new horse. And I want to go to law school. So it would be a long time away, but it’s definitely a goal.
What will it take to get there?
I’ve taken a step, and that was when I did an international show my senior year of high school. It was my goal to do that before I graduated high school, and I did it and got second place. You have to complete these little steps to move up levels. I was at preliminary level at the time, and there are two levels above that before the Olympics. But it takes a really long time before moving up and reaching Olympic level.
What level are you at now?
Since I’ve been at Campbell, I’ve moved down one level—to the training level—because I don’t have the time to keep Hampton fit for preliminary level. In high school, I rode six days a week. I’d jog him for 55 minutes for five days, and on the six day I’d gallop him for a certain amount of time. Just like we get fit running, I have to do the same thing with him. And right now, I don’t have the time commitment to do that and keep up my grades. I ride him about three or four times a week. That’s one of the reasons why I chose Campbell. I needed to be close to home so I could easily get to the barn to ride.
What do you hope to accomplish before you graduate from Campbell?
Another international show called a one-star. There are different levels to eventing, and it goes up to four stars. I already have what I need, but I need to move back up to the preliminary level. I should be able do that this spring and compete in the one-star international show. Hampton is ready to move up to the next level; it has just been a matter of me having the time to put toward it. I think it’s a reasonable goal.
What's next for you?
Career-wise my aspirations are family law. I had a cousin who passed away my freshman year and who was a lawyer and lobbyist for the N.C. General Assembly. She has been my inspiration, and the reason why I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. To help people is what I want to do, and I want to keep riding horses. Going to the barn to ride is my happy place.
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Photos by Bennett Scarborough | Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator