The Georgia equestrian team ended the fall portion of its 2019-20 season by falling to No. 1 Auburn 16-4 on Nov. 15. Freshman riders Rachel McMullen and Bay Noland-Armstrong will spend their break from collegiate competition at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Wellington, Florida.
“It’s a really good way to keep up with skills,” Noland-Armstrong said. “Because it’s kind of hard to take a month and a half off and not work out or not ride and get back into it and expect to be as good as you were.”
The WEF is the largest equestrian festival in the world with competitions beginning in December and concluding in March. Age groups range from as low as 2 years old to 70.
More than 6,000 horses will travel to Florida for competition along with riders from 52 different countries and all 50 states. Some riders are from different universities and others are professionals who are preparing to compete at the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
“Everyone from around the world comes so there will be some girls from the team that will be there with their horses and girls from other teams that will be there,” McMullen said. “It's a huge ordeal so everyone from pony kids to Olympic riders will be there so it's kind of a showcase of everyone.”
McMullen and Noland-Armstrong have been attending the event before their arrival at Georgia. This year will be Noland-Armstrong’s third trip to Wellington while McMullen will be making her ninth appearance.
Both riders have used the opportunity of facing top competition to better themselves individually and improve Georgia equestrian as a whole to work towards the program’s seventh national championship this spring.
“I’ve already talked to coach [Meghan Boenig] and coach Becker about what I can improve on to get me anywhere they want me to be on the team,” Noland-Armstrong said. “I came here to ride and win a national championship which is everyone’s goal but I basically asked them, ‘What can I improve on so that I can go tell my trainer and we’ll get it done.’”
Before they joined the Bulldogs to compete for a national championship, McMullen and Noland-Armstrong took a gap year between high school graduation and their first year at Georgia to focus on their performances at the festival.
Now freshmen at college, both riders see the WEF as an opportunity to reach out to high school students in similar situations to promote Georgia's equestrian program, which regularly recruits riders from the festival. The Bulldogs' 2020 class features two riders who have placed in the competition in previous years.
“We always kind of have our feelers out and I'm always in really close contact with our coaches about girls that I think would fit well in the program,” McMullen said. “I know a lot of people in the industry so I feel like I have a pretty good finger on where everyone is and who would be a good fit for here.”
McMullen and Noland-Armstrong have seen their performances improve since they started competing at the WEF. Both riders will hope for the same this year as they prepare for national championships with Georgia and an equestrian career beyond their college years.
“I think that tells you how dedicated they are to their craft and their sport to make sure they continue to take their time and remain very well educated,” head coach Meghan Boenig said. “This is a profession they want to continue to do after college.”