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NMSU Equestrian Team Clinches National Championship

LAS CRUCES -- Weeks of hard work paid off in silver buckles, trophies and ribbons for New Mexico State University's Equestrian Team. Riders won a national championship in western horsemanship May 3 at the Intercollegiate Horse Show in Port Jervis, New York.

NMSU's five-member team took the lead from the start, winning the first three classes in competition.

Melanie Curry placed first in the beginning Western division, Chelsea Makloski was first in intermediate Western, and Jessica Sorenson was first in advanced Western.

"When the fourth class came up, we needed four points to clinch the title," said Larry Sanchez, team coach and instructor with NMSU's animal and range sciences department. "Jeb Stuart placed third in reining and secured those points. In the final open Western class, Heather Gribling was reserve national champion, and that put us well over the top."

Stuart, the first to ride in his division, found it nerve wracking to watch all the other riders, but kept his composure.

"This is probably one of the most profound things to happen in college," the Las Cruces native said. "This is a lot of fun -- something to remember for all time."

Riders are judged on how well they perform on an unfamiliar horse. Sanchez said NMSU's team practiced riding without saddles and stirrups to get the feel of being one with the horse.

"It's like dancing with a partner," he said. "When you're riding a horse, you need to be in time with that horse. If when that horse makes a move, you make the exact same move, it looks like you're one, and you cannot see the separation between horse and rider."

Now the team can do a victory dance for NMSU's second national title in western horsemanship. The team won in 1995 and was runner-up last year.

"You learn patience and teamwork," said Gribling, a Los Lunas native who will graduate in May. "This group is close and supportive because we've worked hard together."

In a separate division for individual riders, NMSU's Wendy Jackson-Kiess from Los Alamos won the beginning Western division. Other NMSU riders were Cathy Cumberworth from Farmington, third in advanced Western; Jennifer Lowder from Albuquerque, seventh in intermediate Western; Shannon Salazar from Tucumcari, ninth in intermediate Western; and Julie Davis from Albuquerque, eighth in beginning Western.

Sanchez said riders practiced from six to 14 hours each week to prepare for competition.

"I tell my riders, act like you're going into a job interview." he said. "You want to be confident, you want to be secure, you don't want to be too proud. You want to sell yourself, though. You're trying to let the judges know what you've worked for.