Stepping up to the top: In second year of competition, Becker County 4-H Horse Drill Team brings home state title
They may be a young group in terms of competitive experience, but the Becker County 4-H Horse Drill Team is turning plenty of heads in just its second year of existence.
"Becker County 4-H fielded two teams this year," said the team's coach, Andrea Hoff. "One of our teams qualified for state competition, and the other also did extremely well."
The five-person team of McKinna Greggersen, Jenna Tollefson, Tori Johnson, Cameron Lunde and Ashley Strandberg competed in the freestyle category for teams of five riders or less, and advanced from regional competition to take part in the State 4-H Horse Project drill team event, held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul on Sept. 15.
"They took first place at state!" said Hoff. "I'm so proud of them, and of our other team as well. They all did really well this year"
All five competitors in the freestyle event took part in the second team competition, which included two additional riders, Julia Teiken and Katelyn Schaefer.
"That was a compulsory event," Hoff said, explaining that compulsory competition involves using a predetermined, set pattern, while freestyle competition allows the riders to create their own patterns, albeit with certain required elements.
"It's basically synchronized riding," she added, noting that both teams started weekly practices in late May, continuing up until the regional qualifier in Park Rapids on July 21.
"Some of them were practicing twice a week," Hoff said, noting that the teams met on different nights.
"After the regional competition, we took a short break, and then resumed practicing once a week," Hoff said. "We were very lucky. Johanne Pardiac of JF Stables (located just outside Detroit Lakes) offered us the use of their indoor arena for practices. It was the exact same size as the arena for the state competition."
Not only was it an advantage to train in the same conditions they would experience at the state event, but holding practices indoors also meant they weren't at the mercy of outdoor light and weather conditions.
"It was very generous of her," Hoff said.
Even with the indoor practice venue, however, the team faced some challenges prior to competition.
"Two weeks before state, Cameron (Lunde) broke his ankle in football practice, so he had to ride in a cast," Hoff said. "We had to call the state horse show to get approval for him to ride — and he had to ride the whole time with only one foot in the stirrup. That was challenging."
"At first he was a little stiff, but at state he was a pro," said Jenna Tollefson.
"I was very nervous during the first practice (after he was injured)," Hoff admitted. "The girls had to help him get his horse ready."
But that's just part of being a team, said Tori Johnson – when one of them needed a little help, the others stepped up.
Another challenge was the fact that the five members of the team went to three different schools – in Detroit Lakes, Frazee and Lake Park.
"Finding times for practices that worked for everyone was sometimes tough," McKinna Greggersen admitted.
"It's very difficult to have a practice if someone's missing," Hoff explained.
"In most competitions, when someone's injured or missing, someone else can take their place," said Tollefson. "For drill team, we don't have anyone else to fill in (if someone's missing)."
Nevertheless, going to state competition for the first time was a fun experience, though it had its nerve-wracking moments as well.
"When we first found out we were going, it was really exciting," said Johnson.
"My ears hurt from Tori's screaming," joked Greggersen.
"When we started practicing again, I thought, 'We're in the big leagues now,'" added Tollefson. "But I wasn't really nervous until we were just about to walk in (to start the state competition)."
"We were pretty chill until we were getting ready (for the state event)," Johnson agreed.
Hoff said that it helped to spend a few days at the state venue prior to their competition; the 4-H state horse project events actually started on Thursday, Sept. 13.
Once they got out into the arena for the competition, the nerves started to disappear.
"The whole time we were just laughing and smiling," said Tollefson.
"We just got the judges' sheets back a little while ago," said Hoff. "They had nothing but positive comments."
Of course, the challenge now becomes, how do you top a state title?
"We'll have to work harder to get first again — or maybe, get both teams to state next year," Tollefson said.
"We'll have to come up with a new theme, new music, and a new pattern," said Hoff. "We'll have to start from scratch."
But Greggersen, Tollefson and Johnson all said they were looking forward to it.
"It'll be fun," they agreed.