Considering Elena Ruddy spent most of her life concentrating on horses, it's easy to assume she'd be solely focused on preparing for the national collegiate equestrian championships in three weeks.
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Ruddy, a Juneau-Douglas High School graduate and University of Montana junior, does have finals coming up, though.
"I am really excited to be going to nationals, except I have been so busy preparing for semester finals that I am not focused on horses at the moment," said Ruddy, who serves as captain of her equestrian team.
Ruddy will compete in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association's national championships in Individual Advanced Western Horsemanship on May 6 in West Springfield, Mass. Ruddy, 21, qualified for nationals after being named one of the top two riders at the zone championships on March 31 in Pomona, Calif.
In the zone championships, Ruddy competed in both English and Western equestrian disciplines.
Western horsemanship is designed to assess the rider's ability to flow in unison with the horse while executing a set of gaits by subtle aids and cues. The gaits include walking, jogging, trotting, loping, circling, doing figure eights, stopping, backing up and doing various other exercises.
Scoring is also partially based on a rider's flashy Western show attire and equipment, as well as postural performance, poise and execution of the required maneuvers. The judges deduct points from a high score of 20 for minor and major faults in performance, pattern accuracy and speed of delivery. Point deductions also occur for problems with appearance and positioning.
English horsemanship differs in that the attire is traditionally formal with the black coat and helmet, khaki colored pants and black boots. Besides attire, the rider's bent-knee posture, sleek saddle and dramatically different performance elements distinguish English from Western horsemanship.
Ruddy's ascent to the national championships started very early in Juneau.
At the age of 3, Ruddy began riding horses with the help of Joanne Sidney at Swampy Acres and perfected her horseback riding skills over the years with the Thunder Mountain 4-H Club.
Until the end of high school, Ruddy trained and performed on her own horse in regional and statewide events.
In the Lower 48, however, part of the challenge is that competitors ride unfamiliar horses at opponents' tracks without having an opportunity to warm the horse up. The rider must maintain the unfamiliar equine as a seamless, symbiotic unit throughout the performance.
"It is all pretty spontaneous because you don't know what horse you're riding until they draw the horse's number out of a hat," Ruddy said. "Then you basically have enough time to get your equipment and horse ready before its time to go compete."
Ruddy moved to Missoula, Mont., three years ago for its renowned equestrian program. She took over as club president her sophomore year and works with second-generation horse trainer Jeanne Gaudreau at JMG Stables.
Montana's team boasts 30 members. The team also competes against five other squads from around the state.