The final day of the 2018 Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) National Championship Horse Show featured the conclusion of the Western divisions. Young men and sparkle-clad women sat tall in the saddle to compete at the Pennsylvania Farm Complex in Harrisburg. The AQHA National Champion Team University of Findlay took home the trophy after a stunning victory over talented teams from across the country. Ohio State University was named reserve champion.
In his first year at the helm as head coach, Spencer Zimmerman led the Findlay Oilers to the win, but he credits his students and the Findlay program for their success.
“The team’s dedication to one another set them apart—helping each other get to the pen, schooling each other at home, hours of practice to come out here and shine,” Zimmerman said. “I am proud of my riders for putting it all out there in the pen and remembering everything we practiced at home. It really showed.”
Zimmerman, who is from Newport, Pennsylvania, not far from Harrisburg, has spent the last two years as assistant coach to his predecessor Cindy Morehead, who retired last year. And he knows what it is like to walk in his students’ boots.
“I was on the team for four years and I got to compete under Cindy, Clark Bradley and Jake Bowman,” he said. “It has come full circle close to my hometown.”
During his time on the team Findlay earned two national championships.
He explained that most of the 30-member team ride on the equestrian program as well. They ride a couple of horses a day, five to seven days a week. In addition, they have more practice. The riders that are not in the program practice as much as the others. The students have access to a depth of horses available to help them learn.
“We have horses that are broke reiners that can go and make high scores and we have our unbroke colt program,” Zimmerman said. “We have a variety of horses for the students to work with. We try to get them exposed to as much as possible."
He shared that they have an equal amount of depth with the quality of instruction. “It’s not just Clark, Kim and me leading the team, but we have many other eyes at the farm that help to get them ready.”
This is the University of Findlay’s sixth IHSA AQHA Team National Championship.
The Day Belongs to Connor Smith
It was a big day for Connor Smith. The polite and humble St. Andrews University senior from Gastonia, North Carolina, won the Team Open Western Horsemanship and earned the AQHA High Point Western Rider.
Smith’s coach Carla Wennberg fought back tears of excitement and pride in her student who she described as a leader for the team. He went from the Intermediate division to Open under her tutelage, but she credits other trainers for helping to develop the talented rider.
“He’s put a lot of effort in with other trainers to help him with reining,” Wennberg said. “I can’t take all that credit. We’ve had some great horses for him to learn on and a real special horse named Puddy. We all have a great connection and we respect each other and he works hard.”
“You know I just took what Carla always says, ’You can never wait, you just have to start from where you are and learn from what happens as the days pass and build from that,’” Smith said. “Consistency is key, so just working toward consistency and correctness was how I ended up on top.”
Smith complimented Jade, the horse he drew on the final day of competition and described her as sensitive, very correct and a good mover. “She was a lot of fun, she was great on the rail, excellent on the pattern, very smooth and I was able to show off a lot of different maneuvers throughout the pattern,” he said.
Smith has been a member of the IHSA for four years and this is his second trip to Nationals. In his sophomore year, he placed third in Team Advanced Horsemanship.
After graduation, Smith has a job in Charlotte with a company that does search engine optimization and web design.
“I guarantee you he will stay in the horse industry as a competitor,” Wennberg said.
Top Horses Recognized for Their Contribution
The IHSA thanks all their generous sponsors, the competitors, teams, coaches, volunteers and horses for a successful National Championship Horse Show. We look forward to the 2019 season and next year's Nationals in Syracuse, New York.