With four consecutive District championships under its reigns, the Vicksburg High School (VHS-ET) Equestrian Team is, according to Coach Mike Fleetwood, headed for a fifth. Fleetwood, in his sixth year coaching the team, is gearing up for the first District meet in August. The 2014 team of twelve girls has been practicing all summer, twice a week. The Equestrian Team is no small commitment; each girl must have her own horse and be able to transport it to practices. The young champions, however, are not in this alone; the parents (or guardians) have made a serious commitment, as well.
Formed in 1999, the team is led by co-coaches Dawne Steele and (Mike’s wife) Karin Fleetwood, and assisted by Kaiti Fink and Samantha Griffith. At this time, the equestrian team is classified as a club sport, open to male and female high school students. Though the coaches are volunteers, each person is bound to observe standard school sports team rules and requirements. Fleetwood commends Vicksburg High School Principal Kevin O’Neill for supporting and encouraging the Equestrian Team.
Participating in horse sport competitions can be costly. For example, each rider must supply her own competition outfits, horse dressings, and saddles, as well as her travel expenses. Other costs include various admission and registration fees, meals, lodging, health care, medications, electronic communications, and marketing. The VHS Equestrian Team is self-funded and operates solely on fundraising and donations.
The competitions include sixty-three separate riding slots and each rider can compete in a maximum of eight. Some events are based on pure speed against the clock, while others weigh the judges’ opinions of the rider and her horse. Fleetwood applauds the fact that Vicksburg has always been rated “very strong” in the competitive speed events. However, the girls’ athleticism and their dedication to group and independent practicing, have vastly improved in the area of showmanship.
Although the performances are individually scored, it is the total team score that determines whether the team advances to the Regional level after the three District meets. This year, the team will compete in Division A, which requires a school to have ten or more riders. In 2011, the team earned runner-up (second place) at Regionals and placed seventh in the State. As a coach, Fleetwood emphasizes that this is a team sport and that, as members of the team, the girls cannot lose sight of that. Fleetwood feels that the 2014 team is, “. . . the best I have ever coached.”
Steele’s history with the team is bittersweet. Her daughter, Megan Holt, was a member of the team throughout high school. In 2009, while she was captain of the VHS Equestrian Team, Holt was killed in an automobile accident. Despite this tremendous loss, Steele continues to be actively involved with the team. Coach Fleetwood states that the team is always, “. . . riding for Megan.” In one of his tack rooms, Fleetwood displays memorabilia from Megan’s riding days. And on all team shirts since the accident, a memorial insignia in pink, Megan’s favorite color, is attached.
Fleetwood worked hard to raise $25,000 to help facilitate construction of the Megan Holt Arena at the St. Joseph County Fairgrounds, where the team will have one of its competitions. Many current team members are too young to remember Megan, but Coach Fleetwood hopes the reminders that surround them will inspire discussions about driving risks. He hopes that, in some small way, it will remind them that what is here today may not be tomorrow, and to take appropriate precautions that may perhaps save a life.
Members include Captains Ceejay Houghton, Ally Stafinski and Rachel Baughman. Additional members are Taylor Dent, Paige Truckey, Bailey Miracle, Tia Geruszka, Madi Lowes, Hannah Flickinger, Kacey VanDerBos, Keagan Kelley, and Mikayla Maystead. His message to other District 15 teams: “Vicksburg is coming!”