While their friends are out on Friday nights, University of Colorado sophomores Sadie Lahey and Devon Wycoff can be found in barns, hard at work training their horses for dressage competitions.
"We're like crazy cat ladies, but with horses," Lahey said, laughing.
Lahey and Wycoff don't mind missing out on a few nights of fun in college. It's a small price to pay for excelling internationally in dressage, a type of competition that showcases the horse's natural athletic ability and the relationship between horse and rider.
In July, Lahey and Wycoff competed at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships in Lexington, Ky., and brought home several team and individual medals.
Lahey, who represented the northwest region of the United States, helped her team to a silver medal and finished at No. 13 individually. Wycoff, who represented the southwest region, helped her team to a bronze medal and also won a bronze medal individually. Wycoff is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation among junior riders.
To achieve results at elite international competitions, Wycoff and Lahey spend countless hours working with both their horses and a trainer, who is like a coach to the horse and the rider.
In dressage competitions, the rider directs the horse silently with non-verbal cues and slight shifts in their body language. Building trust and a relationship with the horse takes much practice and many hours spent together.
"We're at the barn seven days a week," Wycoff said. "It is very time-consuming. "
Lahey rides a deep brown horse "Uppa," short for "Up to Date P," and Wycoff rides Power Play, who she calls "Player" because he's such a ladies man, she said, laughing.
In the first round of competition, all riders in the same level are given the same test — a sequence of skills — that they must direct their horse through. In the freestyle dressage event, the rider and horse perform a choreographed routine to music.
Wycoff started taking horseback riding lessons with her sister when she was young. When she got her first horse at age 10, she said she started taking horses and dressage more seriously — it became her life.
Her parents, who own Autumn Hill International Equestrian Center north of Boulder, say dressage taught their daughters discipline, goal-setting and other valuable life skills.
"It was far and away the best investment we ever made," said dad Jeff Wycoff. "The investment in putting Devon on a horse has changed her life. She's together and driven. She was able to take herself from being a little girl with very little direction to setting goals."
Lahey, who grew up in Montana and Idaho, works at Singletree Farm in east Boulder to help offset some of the costs of competing in dressage. A trip to an international competition, like the Young Rider Championships, can cost more than $10,000, she said.
Working with and training horses has gotten Lahey thinking about possibly changing her major from engineering to something equestrian-related. Wycoff, who wants to pursue a career in film, said she's torn about what role horses will play in her life once she starts working full time after graduation.
"I'm trying to figure out how to balance horses," Wycoff said. "With film, it's so unpredictable. How do I balance that?"
Because they spend so much time with their horses, Wycoff and Lahey said they don't think of them just as pets.
Often, their horses can communicate without words or make them feel better after a bad day. Having a strong relationship with their horses is what allows Wycoff, Lahey and other dressage riders to do so well in competition.
"You just adore your horse," Wycoff said. "His ears. The way he tilts his head. The way he looks at you. When you have a bad day, you just go sit in their stall."
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