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The Final Dismount By jaclyn Sersland

Four years ago, if you were to ask Ojai Valley School senior Ivy Sun to pet a horse, let alone ride one, she would have run for the hills.

Now, as she counts down the days to graduation, she can’t imagine having to say goodbye to the barn where she learned to ride.

On May 31, 31 seniors will graduate and leave OVS and everything they’ve grown to love about the school. Eight of those seniors will say goodbye to the equestrian program and the horses they’ve developed a bond with over their years here.

Ivy joined the equestrian program at the start of her freshman year having never even seen a horse before. Since then, she’s become an incredible horseback rider who’s ridden a variety of different horses, gone on all the spring equestrian trips, participated in several Paul Belasik dressage clinics, and is currently preparing for her first-ever dressage show.

Senior Ivy Sun with her pony Clyde. Photo by Jaclyn Sersland.

“When I first started riding I was really scared,” Ivy said. “I refused to go into a stall for 30 minutes when they tried teaching me to put a halter on. Now I can canter all around the arena and do my own dressage tests.”

Ivy didn’t just participate in equestrian, she thrived. And in less than four months, she’ll say goodbye to the program and the horses who’ve helped her overcome her fear of animals.

And she’s heartbroken about it.

“I know that even if I go to another barn at another school, I’ll never find a barn like the one here,” said Ivy, who has grown so fond of all things equestrian that it factored into her college search and could weigh into where decides to spend the next four years.

“It’s really sad,” she added, “and I think I’m going to cry on graduation day just because I won’t be able to see the horses anymore.”

Ivy’s ridden all four years, but she’s changed horses several times. Wendy Lazo-Dowdy, however, has been riding her pony Simba since eighth grade.

When Wendy came to OVS in eighth grade, she knew the basics of horseback riding. From her camps, she knew how to walk, trot, and a bit of canter, but she says Simba taught her how to be an actual rider.

“I’d never been bucked off before I rode him. I had never been challenged before I rode him. He was the ultimate puzzle for me to figure out, and he still is,” Wendy said. “But he’s taught me loyalty, and everything else I know about horses.”

When Wendy first started riding Simba, he was nervous. He was constantly bucking her off and being difficult to slow down. But Wendy didn’t give up on Simba, and continued working with him throughout high school to the point where - though he still has a sassy, strong personality - he loyally works with her.

Through that process, the two developed a strong bond with each other.

“He’s my best friend,” Wendy said. “He’s been there for me the longest, and when I was in eighth grade having a hard time I sang to him. I still sing to him, and he listens to me. He’s an older guy, but he still has so much heart.”

Senior Wendy Lazo-Dowdy with her "best friend" Simba. Photo by Lilli Trompke.

While she still rides Simba, this year she decided to start riding a second horse. She started riding Georgie, a small pony that she was helping the barn staff train. Though her time with Georgie has been much shorter, he and Simba have both had a large influence on her and her future career path.

Georgie inspired her to continue training horses that people tend to underestimate or consider naughty horses, and Simba inspired her to help others through equestrian.

“[Simba] has helped me so much and my goal in life is to help other teenagers discover themselves through a horse like I have with him,” Wendy said. “He’s led me to what I want to do in my life in general, which is help kids find horses that heal them like he healed me.”

The seniors aren’t just losing their beloved horses, but the equestrian program is losing eight valuable riders who have either learned to ride on OVS horses or who’ve participated and won a number of competitions for the school.

OVS Equestrian Director Stephanie Gustafson is sad to watch the seniors leave. Many of them have been riding since freshman year, and she has watched their skills evolve over the years. She’s watched the riders’ confidence grow and their bonds with their horses develop.

Mrs. Gustafson can’t imagine what the barn will be like next year, especially because so many of those seniors have been part of the competitive program, United States Pony Club, and went on the first two international spring horse trips. The seniors have brought a lot to the program, and it is difficult to let go of them next year.

“It’s not just about how the quantity of riders leaving, it’s about the quality of those riders,” Mrs. Gustafson said. “We have so many shared experiences and stories, from learning to ride for the very first time to competing in a first rally or show, and every accomplishment in between. They will truly be missed.”

The barn has been open to all students at OVS from beginners and experts, freshmen to seniors, and females and males. Out of the eight senior riders, Lico Chen, is the only male.

When Lico joined February of sophomore year, he was the only male in the program across all grades. That, however, didn’t stop him from riding.

Lico joined because he always wanted to try horseback riding and was curious about whether he’d like the sport or not. He ended up loving the sport and the program and staying in it throughout the rest of his time at OVS.

“Definitely my favorite part was the time spent with the horses,” Lico said. “We spend a lot of time with them and having to go and not see them afterwards is sad.”

After February break, the seniors will only have a few months left with their horses. At the end of May they’ll have to pack up their grooming kits, and hug their beloved animal friends one last time before they leave for months until they visit them and the school again as OVS alumni.

“I’m really glad I took that risk to start riding my freshman year,” Ivy said. “The OVS barn has been the most special place for me throughout the years and I believe even if we all graduate and go to different colleges, the barn connects us.”

Seniors Wendy Lazo-Dowdy and Lilli Trompke, on a walk with their horses Simba and Monty. Photo by Jaclyn Sersland.

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