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A black cowboy hat with an OSU logo sits on top of a brown saddle hanging on a wooden fence in a dirt arena.
The Atherton Family Arena is the main practice arena where the equestrian student-athletes spend their days working. (Photo by Rylee Broadbent)

Road to Ocala

Monday, January 9, 2023

Media Contact: Kaitlyn Weldon | Digital Communications Specialist | 405-744-7063 |

After years of long practices, 6 a.m. workouts, fighting back tears after a loss and working tirelessly to keep their horsesin tip-top shape, the Cowgirl equestrian team members locked arms and waited in anxious anticipation.

As the final score was posted, their tense faces turned to wide smiles and their arms wrapped around each other with excitement. They were, in fact, the 2022 national champions.

The 42-woman team won the first overall team National Collegiate Equestrian Association national championship in Oklahoma State University Equestrian Team history.

“Winning a national title is not an easy feat,” said Larry Sanchez, coach of the OSU Equestrian Team. “Whatever it took, whatever we needed to do to make sure the team propelled forward, we did it.”

Equestrian student-athletes compete horseback. The NCEA is unique because the collegiate athletes compete on unfamiliar horses, unless they host the meet.

“When we travel, we are riding the opposing team’s horses,” Sanchez said. “The idea is to put the emphasis on the quality and effectiveness of the rider and not the horse.

“No one rides their own horses at the Big 12 or the NCEA National Championship,” he added.

The women’s collegiate sport has two disciplines: western and jumping seat. Those two disciplines each consist of two events: reining and horsemanship for western and flat and fences for jumping seat.

“A rider from each team rides one particular horse, and whoever scored higher in that specific event on that horse scores a point for their team,” Sanchez said.

Typically, each team has around 20 starters, five for each event.

Stephanie Helsen, a double bachelor’s alumna in agricultural education and agricultural leadership competed in reining for the OSU Equestrian Team and was afraid she would not be one of those 20.

“I came in as a freshman not knowing anyone,” Helsen said. “I was introduced to the team and already knew these girls were going to be my best friends.”

Helsen was chosen to start her freshman year and competed throughout her career until the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season in 2020. She competed in the 2020-21 season and stayed an additional year.

“OSU gave us the opportunity to attend a fifth year and extend our scholarship for our sports,” Helsen said. “During my spring semester, I was a student coach for the team after I had spent the fall semester student-teaching for mydegree.”

During the postseason and the Big 12 Championship, Helsen continued to student coach and not compete. Then, the unexpected happened.

“The week after winning the Big 12, our western discipline coach, Laura Brainard, called me into her office,” she said. “She asked me how I felt about competing in nationals.”

Helsen accepted the offer from Brainard humbly and competed in the national championship.

“It was such an honor and a privilege to be there competing,” Helsen said. “In that unique situation, I was unimaginably overwhelmed by the support of my teammates.”

As a five-year team member, Helsen competed in many meets and to her surprise, her national championship run in Ocala, Florida, was one of the calmest she ever felt during her career.

The mental preparation and support from her team helped her stay collected during her final meet.

“In the competition ring, it was one maneuver at a time, one stride at a time, and I felt completely in the moment,” Helsen said. “It takes a really special team to have a teammate step in who hasn’t really been there and still be so excited. For that, they deserve the world.”

Josie Elliott, an agribusiness senior, knew the impact their team would have on the present and future of the OSU Equestrian Team.

“OSU equestrian coaches picked me, and I knew that if they were willing to take a chance on me, I was more than willing to give them everything I had to make it work,” Elliott said.

The team went into the national championship ranked No. 1, but the pressure during their final three days was high, she said.

“Once we got there, the excitement was intense,” Elliott said. “The pressure was also there.

“We competed against a team on the first day we had beaten before, but we couldn’t count them out, especially at this level,” she added.

After winning day one and two of competition, the Cowgirls knew day three — championship day — was going to be hard, Elliott said.

“We had to have faith that we had worked the entire year putting all the effort into this one big moment,” she said.“That was what got us through.”

Elliott stood by her team members as the final event began on the biggest stage of the year.

“Having the whole team there rallying each other on and watching some of my best friends in the ring that day — knowing they could get the job done for us — had to be one of the best feelings ever,” Elliott said.

Support and encouragement are important aspects within any sport, said Quincee Clark, an agribusiness sophomore who competes in the reining event. She receives an overwhelming amount of love from her teammates, she added.

“I loved having the support at nationals during the highs and lows of competing,” Clark said. “I had people to talk through it with and teammates pushing me to get back up after a hard day in the ring.”

Clark was the only freshman starter in the western discipline last year and won the national championship alongside all her friends.

“Nationals, as a whole, was crazy,” she said. “The facility was nuts, and the fact we were there for a bigger purpose made it super surreal.”

Sanchez said the team led each other into the Big 12 Championship and nationals, which set them apart from other teams.

“When your team leads in the direction that you are wanting to go, that is when big things can happen,” he said.

The NCEA National Championship title did not come easy, Sanchez said. These student-athletes had to work in school before they could really thrive in the ring.

“We look for girls who not only succeed in the ring but also the girls who succeed academically,” he added.

The team members take their academics seriously, Elliott said, and professors in the Ferguson College of Agriculture have given them not only the flexibility to compete as athletes but also the expectation to succeed in class as students.

“My professors and advisors were so good about making sure when we were gone for the Big 12 and national championship we had all of our work done ahead of time,” Elliott said.

“People have the misconception that we take our sport more seriously than we do our academics, but our coaches make sure we know school comes first,” she said. “We are students before we are athletes.”

The family aspect of the Cowgirl equestrian team has made the program successful and is one of the reasons they succeeded at such a high level, Sanchez said.

“Every single athlete on last year’s team had family at the core of everything we did,” Sanchez added. “It is that unconditional love — no matter what — and being there for each other, just like we do with our family.”

Things to know about OSU Equestrian

  1. Coach Larry Sanchez, who came to OSU in 1999, is the first and only OSU Equestrian coach in Cowgirl history.
  2. Stephanie Helsen, a double bachelor’s alumna in agricultural education and agricultural leadership, was named the 2022 OSU Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year. She competed in reining for the Cowgirls and was part of the national championship team.
  3. Nine Ferguson College of Agriculture students were members of the 2022 NCEA National Champion OSU Equestrian Team:
    • Stephanie Helsen, Washington
    • Calley Huston, Texas
    • Josie Elliot, Virginia
    • Stephanie Gripp, Illinois
    • Hannah Dodd, Missouri
    • Kelly Harper, Florida
    • Lydia Bell, Oklahoma
    • Quincee Clark, Mississippi
    • Lindsey Porteous, Massachusetts
  4. Four new Ferguson College of Agriculture freshmen joined the OSU Equestrian Team for the 2022-2023 season:
    • Rylee Ridgley, Delaware
    • Tristan Bagby, Kentucky
    • Abby Budd, Colorado
    • Emma Quigley, New Jersey

Story By: Rylee Broadbent | Cowboy Journal

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