Central senior signs letter-of-intent to compete at Auburn University next season
By Jeff Nations
WOODSTOCK -- Hannah Stephens and her 5-year-old mare, Sensational Hannah, will be splitting up next fall.
The parting, though unavoidable, likely means the end of a world championship equestrian partnership.
Stephens, who rode Sensational Hannah to a world championship in Western Showmanship (14-18 age division) in this past summer's APHA Youth World Championship Show in Fort Worth, Texas, signed her letter-of-intent this week to join Auburn University's nationally-ranked women's equestrian team next year.
The Central High School senior will have to part ways with Sensational Hannah when that happens -- intercollegiate equestrian calls for riders to compete from a pool of school-owned horses. That means Stephens will be headed to Alabama, and Sensational Hannah will be staying back at her home stable in Texas.
"I've never done that," Stephens said. "I show one horse, so that's going to be a huge change when I go to college. When I have an away meet at a different school, I'm going to draw a horse's name out of a hat or something. Then I'll have like five minutes to warm up with that horse, and then I have to do a pattern."
Stephens competes in Western-style equestrian, with a specialty in horsemanship. It's an event Stephens has grown to excel at since focusing on competition about six years ago. Stephens, raised on a Fort Valley farm, has been around horses all her life and has found plenty of success in the show ring with numerous Virginia 4-H and national competition championships to her credit. Among her top places were high finishes not just in Western Horsemanship, but also Western Pleasure and Western Showmanship. She's garnered Reserve World Champion status multiple times competing in the Pinto World Championships, and ranked nationally pole bending and barrel racing while competing in the Paint Horse Association.
But the discipline and precision of Western Horsemanship has had the most lasting attraction for Stephens, and it was her stellar performance in the Youth World Championship and a friendship with current Auburn rider Katie Buff that helped Stephens decide to accept a scholarship to join the Tigers.
"Horses have been a part of my life as long as I can remember, and I just don't really want to let go of that," Stephens said. "It's just been something I've always felt like I could do better. I just want to keep going and getting better, performing better."
Stephens will join a national powerhouse at Auburn, currently ranked No. 3 nationally in women's equestrian. A fully sanctioned NCAA intercollegiate sport, women's equestrian riders are expected to fulfill the same academic and program obligations as any other athlete.
"It's going to be a lot -- it's going to be like playing any other sport," said Stephens, who also plays soccer at Central in the spring. "Sure, there might be more workouts with a different sport like soccer or football, but I'll have morning workouts three times a week and I'll practice every day. And we'll have philanthropy events we'll have to do. It's going to take up a lot of time."
At Auburn, Stephens hopes to contribute to that success.
"In college I'd love to win nationals -- I think it would be really cool to be part of a team that did that," Stephens said. "I don't plan on becoming a trainer or anything. Riding's always been just like my hobby and not something I want to make a profession out of."
Stephens is still spending plenty of time in the show ring now, still riding Sensational Hannah in national competitions ranging from North Carolina to Texas.
"This will be the third year in a row that she'll be gone for New Year's Eve and that whole period of time," said Keith Stephens, Hannah's father. "She gives up one month of her summer right out of the gate, right after school's out, and many, many weekends throughout the year."
Giving up her time is one thing -- Stephens has gladly done that over the years. Giving up Sensational Hannah, who had her name long before Hannah Stephens ever laid eyes on her, might be tougher.
It won't happen yet, though -- Stephens is planning to compete once more in the Youth World Championship this summer before she packs her bags to ride in the Southeastern Conference.
"I'm nervous, but I'm really excited," Stephens said. "I'm ready to take the next step and do the next thing that I'm offered with horses. I love showing the way I do now, but I'm ready to transition to college."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>