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Marble Falls Western horse-riding teams qualify for nationals

Lone Star Equestrians rider Chloe Smallwood

Lone Star Equestrian rider Chloe Smallwood, a Burnet Middle School sixth-grader, warms up before practice. This is her first year to train for Western riding competitions, and she is halfway points-wise to qualifying for the national show in April. Staff photo

Both the middle school and high school Lone Star Equestrians Western horse-riding teams based in Marble Falls recently won enough points to compete in the national show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on April 29. Half of the 14 members of the Lone Star Equestrians who competed in the Winter Show at Texas Tech University on Feb. 19-20 qualified as individual competitors as well. The rest still have the Region 7 Western finals April 2 at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches to add to their scores.

“They have one more show to go,” coach Kelly Haydon said. “They can still qualify. In fact, one of them has only one more point to go.” 

Lone Star Equestrians is one of five Texas-based Western riding teams that trains and competes in horsemanship, reining, and ranch riding on college campuses across the state. Events are held in late winter and early spring.

To ride competitively in an Interscholastic Equestrian Association Western event is equivalent to knowing how to drive any car ever made, while only training on a few. 

“Imagine getting into a car you’ve never driven, where even turning the car on can be a hassle,” Haydon said. “Every time these kids compete, they get on a new horse. They have to react quickly and ride it differently. Some of these horses are like the difference between driving a Porsche and driving a VW.”  

Haydon and her husband, Russell, train the team on their ranch with their personal horses. The athletes are Western riders, who strive for a “deep and secure seat” and are trained to have a “light rein,” she said. A deep and secure seat means to sit close in the saddle so you don’t bounce when you ride. A light rein is to have a soft hand when using the reins. 

“You have to have a lot of tools to get on a horse you know nothing about,” said Burnet Middle School sixth-grader Chloe Smallwood, who is halfway to qualifying for nationals. “… It’s a whole new ballgame when you get on something you don’t know. You have to have a certain mindset.”

Chloe has been riding horses since the fourth grade. This is her first year to train for Western riding competitions. She has learned to “think before you rein,” which might be the most important tool of all. 

“What we teach these kids is critical thinking skills,” Haydon said. “When they get on a new horse, they have to react quickly and ride it differently. It’s a new horse, and they have to figure out what makes this one go. They have to learn now to act quickly and get a job done.” 

Lone Star Equestrians rider Emma Harthausen
Lone Star Equestrians rider Emma Harthausen (left) gets instructions from coach Kelly Haydon as assistant coach Russell Haydon looks on. The Haydons train Western horse-riding teams at their ranch on their own horses. The Lone Star Equestrian high school and middle school teams qualified for the national show on April 29. Several members will compete individually as well. Staff photo

Along with training in the saddle, athletes also learn to observe, feet on the ground, notebooks in hand. The young riders take notes as the animals are ridden around the ring during an observation period. They are then allowed to question the individuals showing the horses to learn more about each one. 

“We watch the horses warm up and put the kids on the (assigned) horses a minute before they go into the arena,” Russell Haydon said. “They tell them the cues of the horse. They have to try to figure that out a little bit.”

Young riders are put in three categories based on their skill levels: beginners, novice, and intermediate or advanced. Riders come in from different gates astride their chosen horse. 

“We want them sitting up, looking tall and elegant, and having a good show presence,” Russell said. “This takes some intelligence. You have to have a high IQ to be successful, besides the athleticism.”

The payoff for riding in competitions goes beyond any belt buckles or trophies they might win. Western riding competitions can also develop into college scholarships. 

“Our horse shows are at college campuses, and that allows them to visit campuses and decide if they want to go,” Kelly Haydon said. “They can meet equestrian coaches and be seen, just like with football. It’s a really good venue to introduce these kids to coaches and campuses.”

Emma Harthausen, a seventh-grader at Liberty Hill’s Santa Rita Middle School, who is one point away from qualifying, touts another benefit. 

“I was five years old,” she said about her first horse ride on a pony at a carnival. “Ever since, I wanted to try horses. If you feel bad, you can go on a trail ride. Being on a horse calms me down.”

Anyone interested in joining the Lone Star Equestrians should visit Students will need to first contact a coach and pick a team before registering online, Kelly Haydon said. She can be reached by emailing

“Pick a team to be on and set up a profile online,” she continued. “You do not have to own your own horse.”