News>Feature - Saddle up: First cadet to qualify for national equestrian tournament to compete May 2-5
Cadet 1st Class John Ploschnitznig practices English saddle riding at the Air Force Academy Equestrian Center stables before classes the morning of April 24, 2013. Ploschnitznig, who has been involved with the equestrian team here for just 19 months, is the first Academy cadet to qualify for the nationals, to be held May 2-5 in Harrisburg, Pa. (U.S. Air Force photo/Carol Lawrence)
Air Force Academy equestrian team coach Kari Randle helps Cadet 1st Class John Ploschnitznig and his favorite Academy horse, Hollywood, in the corral after Ploschnitznig practiced his riding techniques at the Academy Equestrian Center stables April 24, 2013. Hollywood, a 9-year-old thoroughbred, was previously owned by the Marine Corps before being purchased by the Academy. (U.S. Air Force photo/Carol Lawrence)
Cadet 1st Class John Ploschnitznig rubs Hollywood’s nose before putting him in his stall at the Air Force Academy Equestrian Center Stables April 24, 2013. Ploschnitznig, a native of Pittsburgh, will be the first cadet from the Air Force Academy to compete in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association National Championships, scheduled to take place May 2-5 in Harrisburg, Pa. (U.S. Air Force photo/Carol Lawrence)
Cadet 1st Class John Ploschnitznig brushes down Hollywood after a morning practice session at the Air Force Academy's Equestrian Center April 24, 2013. Ploschnitznig, a native of Pittsburgh, will compete in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association National Championships in Harrisburg, Pa., May 2-5. (U.S. Air Force photo/Carol Lawrence)
4/26/2013 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Every time Cadet 1st Class John Ploschnitznig heads down to the Equestrian Center stables here, he never knows what to expect from "Hollywood," the Academy-owned 9-year-old horse he rides.
The tall, black thoroughbred may be feeling energized and ready to jump a fence, or sluggish and only want to nibble on his hay. Nevertheless, Ploschnitznig's determination to get them to work as a team has taken him far on the Academy's equestrian team -- all the way to his becoming the first cadet to qualify for the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association National Championships May 2-5 in Harrisburg, Pa.
"It can be really frustrating dealing with an 800-pound animal with its own brain that has its own mood fluctuations," Ploschnitznig said. "That's my favorite part about riding. No matter how things start out with the horse, it's about working to get the result you're looking for and when you get there, it's a great feeling."
Ploschnitznig, a native of Pittsburgh, joined the Academy's equestrian team in August 2011 without any prior experience riding horses.
"They always say to try new things in college and I had always wanted to ride horses," he said. "Growing up, my dad said, 'You're not going to ride them because it's an expensive thing to get into, no one else in the family rides and we don't know anything about horses. What I found out when I came here is that it's more accessible than you might think. As soon as you get to know people who ride horses, they want to share it with you and bring you into the riding world."
Ploschnitznig attends practice three times a week and private lessons once a week with the team's coach, Kari Randle.
"Getting down to the stables and putting in my private lessons has helped me out a lot and Coach Kari has brought me a long way from where I first started," Ploschnitznig said. "Kari has been instrumental in bringing the team to where we are today and the dedication from Mary Kelly (an economics professor here and the team's officer in charge) has enabled us to build a team, bring in good horses and have opportunities to compete."
The equestrian league is split into regions, zones and the national level. Ploschnitznig placed second at regionals this year and first at zones, qualifying him to compete with 16 other riders in the walk-trot equitation event at nationals.
There are at least 1,000 college students who compete in walk-trot. Ploschnitznig is one of 17 riders who made it to nationals, Randle said.
"That's an amazing accomplishment," she said. "He has an incredible work ethic; he loves horses and has the drive to compete. He is going to be an exquisite officer in the Air Force."
During each competition, the school hosting the event provides horses for the riders to compete with, Ploschnitznig said.
"You're not allowed to ride the horse before the competition, so the first time you're getting on the horse is also the same time you're being judged at riding, which is a bit of a challenge," he said.
Kelly said Ploschnitznig has an innate ability to ride well.
"He sits a horse beautifully," she said. "He is also a 'quiet' rider, which means he is comfortable riding and that in turn, makes the horse calm."
Ploschnitznig said because he didn't expect to compete past regionals, he really wants to win at nationals.
"There's a lot more work I have to do before nationals but I'm confident that my coach knows where I am," Ploschnitznig said. "I'm trusting in her and hopefully the work I've put in so far will be a strong base to go out there and at least represent the Academy well."
Ploschnitznig's parents live in Pittsburgh and plan to attend nationals.
"It'll be their first time seeing me compete on a horse, so I'm excited for that," he said.
After Ploschnitznig graduates from the Academy, he will be stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. He said he wants to continue to grow in the sport.
"My time in the league here is coming to an end but I plan to find a new sport within the equestrian world," Ploschnitznig said. "It's a lifelong activity and I've really enjoyed it."
The Academy's equestrian team was created two years ago and currently consists of 10 cadets and 14 horses. It's open to anyone cadet who would like to join.
"Although I'm the first cadet going to nationals, we have a lot of good riders here and kids coming into the Academy who are interested in riding," Ploschnitznig said. "Each practice is about two or three hours, an hour spent riding and the rest of the time getting the horse ready to ride. As long as you're willing to learn and put in the work, anyone can get involved."
Kelly said she's proud of Ploschnitznig and that he's done an amazing job working hard to become a terrific rider.
"There are people who have been riding their whole lives who never even make it to the regional competition," Kelly said. "He started riding 19 months ago, so I encourage cadets who have an interest to meet with me or another team member and come down to the barn for a ride."