Claire Nitsche galloped away from Bainbridge’s shores two years ago when she left for college. Now she’s saddling up for the national stage to compete for a championship title with her equestrian skills.
Nitsche, 20, is a 2011 graduate from Bainbridge High and is attending Western Washington University, where she is a member of the college’s equestrian team.
“College riding is really different from anything I grew up riding with,” Nitsche said. “You don’t have your own horse, you don’t get to ride them before you go in, you don’t get your own saddle, you don’t know anything about them.”
Despite the challenge, Nitsche has been impressing audiences and judges with her riding skills in jumping.
Riders such as Nitsche must navigate a course with an unfamiliar horse, and the riders are judged for their equitation, or horsemanship skills; posture, constancy and the ability to show off the horse, among other performance measures.
The island rider has been so successful in her college riding career that she will soon ride in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association National Championships in Harrisburg, Pa.
The competition is May 2-5.
She will compete in the Individual Novice Equitation Over Fences competition against the top collegiate riders from across the country. The title of national champion is the ultimate prize.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Nitsche said. “It’s humbling to be riding against the riders I will be going up against.”
It wasn’t easy to get to where she’s at now. Nitsche had to earn 36 points by winning ribbons at competitions throughout Washington and Oregon. Each ribbon is worth set point values. She was one of the top two riders in the region, and she won the regional championship for her division. She followed that accomplishment by taking the title in her event at the Zone 8 Championships in Parker, Colo.
Now she’s headed to nationals.
“It’s huge,” Nitsche said of the event, a televised competition that is the oldest and largest annual collegiate riding championship.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do and I can’t believe it’s actually happening,” she said.
The achievement carries an extra sense of accomplishment for Nitsche, who said she never won anything while riding in high school.
“When I was home I didn’t win anything,” she said. “I had a horse that didn’t want to compete. We would be great at home, but when we got to shows, she would freak out. It was disheartening.”
Everything changed when she got to Western, though.
“In college I can really express myself more as a rider,” Nitsche added.
Nitsche thanked Bainbridge for putting her on the path to nationals. It’s a journey that unfolded quite quickly, she noted.
“With the amount of support I’ve gotten from the community, I feel extraordinarily lucky that I’ve lived here,” Nitsche said. “We’ve received donations to cover the cost of traveling, and I’m covered, and I only qualified three weeks ago.”