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Aggieland hosting athletes from across state for Special Olympics equestrian competition

The Eagle - 5/19/2018

More than 180 athletes and their horses are competing this weekend at the Brazos County Expo as part of the state-level Special Olympics equestrian competition. The riders are challenged to be in excellent communication with their animals, directing them through barrels and guiding them in relays as they work toward earning a gold medal in one of numerous categories.

This is the fifth year the Special Olympics of Texas has hosted the state-level equestrian competition in Bryan. Athletes in 19 divisions statewide travel every year with either their own horses or with riding club teams from their hometowns. Athletes as young as 15 and as old as 72 are in Aggieland this weekend, going head-to-head in barrel racing, pole bending, trail riding, figure eight racing, Western riding and feats of showmanship.

"What really stands out about this is that a lot of these athletes have been told they would never be able to understand patterns or balance on horses," said Jesse Marrujo, director of competition and games for the Special Olympics of Texas. "But, as you can see, we have a lot of athletes who can read patterns and control their horses, and this helps them out more than bouncing a ball. This is an individual sport, and it gives athletes a sense of pride and ownership with what they're doing here."

Lydia Bishop, 22, of Denton prepared to enter the arena Friday afternoon for the first round of competition on Gypsy. The horse comes from the Born 2 Be Riding Club out of Denton, of which Bishop and several athletes at the competition are members. Though Bishop doesn't own Gypsy, she shares a bond with the 10-year-old mare.

"Gypsy and Lydia have synced up pretty well," said Lydia's mother, Francis Bishop. "Gypsy is a good partner for Lydia."

Gypsy is an obedient horse and follows her rider's commands in the arena -- most of the time.

"It really depends on what day it is," Lydia Bishop said.

Lydia Bishop has been competing for years now, having first gained interest in riding through the American Heritage scouting service project, when she earned a badge for horsemanship.

"I'd been wanting to ride horses for several years at that point, but my parents didn't say yes until I earned that badge," she said.

Her parents have been proud to watch the young woman grow and improve in skill working with the large animals over the years, bringing home not only medals, but first-place belt buckles, too.

"I think you learn more about yourself in the show ring than outside," Francis Bishop said. "It's a good way to see what kind of growth you have, going from show to show."

Anna Griffith, 25, of Friendswood was also preparing on Friday afternoon to compete in multiple events as part of a riding club team, a member of Loving Hearts Ranch. She, too, enjoys the connection she has with her assigned horse Trigger, an 18-year-old palomino.

"He matches my hair," Griffith joked.

Griffith most enjoys competing in showmanship, where the audience admires Trigger as he struts his stuff. The young athlete has won seven belt buckles over the past five years; so many she's even given some to her family members. But, it's not all about winning.

"I just like having some fun," she said.

"I think she does pretty well, considering I've never been on a horse myself," said Griffith's mother, Tami. "It impresses me. She can talk to the horse. [Her coaches] Amy and Eddy taught her to talk to the horses with her legs, and to use different signals. I never knew all that. She's learned to perfect it."

Ranch and riding program owner Eddy Reynolds brought several athletes from Friendswood to compete at the state level this weekend, including his son Jay.

"It's the greatest thing," he said. "This has helped Jay's core strength and his balance."

Reynolds and his wife teach the athletes on their team not only how to ride, but instruct them in all aspects of caring for horses. It benefits them in many ways, and Reynolds has enjoyed watching athletes like Griffith improve immensely in skill over the years. Seeing the athletes truly shine as they ride in competitions like this weekend's is inspiring.

"I [started this] because I see all the happiness and joy that it brings," he said.

For a complete schedule of the final events in this weekend's competition, visit www.sotx.org/competitions/equestrian/.

 
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