10/14/2011 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- When the Air Force Academy equestrian team goes to competitions, they have a few things in common with the Jamaican bobsled team: small group of upstarts stepping into the arena against longtime powerhouses with the resources to match; questions about their competence in the sport; complete devotion to a seemingly hopeless cause; plenty of verve and spunk despite the long odds.
Hollywood won't be telling this story anytime soon, however. So for now, the equestrian team's website will have to do.
And after some pretty phenomenal results at recent events, the website has a considerable amount of boast-worthy items to publicize. Just last week, the 14-person team trekked up to Fort Lupton, Colo., and emerged from the field of nine teams with a third-place finish.
In Colby, Kan., the previous week, Cadet 3rd Class Spencer Rutter won the opening reining event and two other cadets placed third.
The results speak for themselves, but they're even more impressive when a little context is added.
Many competitors in the equestrian events are NCAA-level athletes whose schools equip them through the athletic budget. Master Sgt. Travis Clawson, the team's NCOIC, said that at the last competition the Academy riders arrived in cars, while the University of Nebraska team showed up in a massive tour bus.
Most of the teams the Academy faces have upward of 50 members who specialize in either English or Western. As a club team, the Falcon equestrian competitors have no such luxury.
"We're very, very small fish in a very big ocean," said Cadet 1st Class Dayna Grant, the team captain. "Luckily, we've got a very experienced group. It helps to have experienced riders to guide the newbies."
As far as resources, the equestrian team must make do with what little it has. A few of the cadets have donated their personal horses for team use.
Equestrian Center Director Billy Jack Barrett set aside a barn for them, and everything inside the barn is owned by cadets. The budget is all of $8,000.
Many of the rival schools offer equine science as an academic major. Academy cadets have no such option, so recruiting has been done primarily via the annual Club Day.
Grant said that the past two years the team has brought live horses. The presence of actual animals has drawn more interest than a poster otherwise would have.
Even so, the time demands the sport imposes tend to keep away all but the true die-hards.
"Horses, unlike bicycles, need to be exercised every day," Grant said. "That's part of the reason why we don't have many people. Not everybody is willing to commit that kind of time. It's been an interesting evolution because my freshman year, we weren't even a club. We were just a group of kids hanging out with horses."
That evolution turned into competitiveness with amazing rapidity. It has also come on the heels of a dormant spell that covered several years. All the while, the other horse-related club at the Academy, the rodeo team, was riding strong.
Now that the equestrian team is competing again, Barrett's facility is seeing more use among the Cadet Wing, which provides him with more volunteers for programs.
The competition season runs through March and consists of 10 shows under the auspices of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association.
Clawson said he's very proud of the team's accomplishments, which he believes are magnified by the limitations the Academy riders face and their status as the underdog's underdog.
He and Grant are hoping for many more positive showings and a little less anonymity.
"We don't get much attention," Grant said. "But this is a completely well-rounded program in terms of ensuring what the Air Force looks for in an officer."