Thread the needle, the wagon wheel, weaves, rollbacks, obliques and serpentines are all staple ingredients in the crowd-pleasing and intricate dance that is equestrian drill team. Drill teams can be made up of any number of horses and riders from a pair, to teams of 20 or more that perform choreographed patterns set to music.
There are teams that span all the disciplines of the riding world from classical and traditional dressage to the fast and furious cowgirls of the rodeo. Teams can be made up of a single breed or color of horses, or mixed groups. Movements in the patterns range from basic single-file work to riding at a full gallop and jumping through hoops of fire. Two of the most famous drill teams that perform all over the world are the Royal Lipizzaner Stallions and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. However, one does not have to be of royal heritage to participate in the majority of drill teams.
What is required to be part of a drill team, is a rider skilled enough to maintain a consistency in the required gait and able to adjust a horse’s stride to stay in sync with a partner or a whole team of horses. The horses involved have to be comfortable working in close quarters with other horses, quick to respond to aids for turning, slowing down or speeding up and reliable when faced with crowds and loud noises. Drill team is an excellent training experience for any level of horse or rider.
The University of Maine hosts an equestrian drill team. At the J.F. Witter Center in Orono students learn care of livestock, basic large animal animal handling techniques and basic veterinary procedures. The farm is home to the University’s dairy cow herd and a herd of Standardbred horses. The horses are all donated to the program and are ex-harness racers.
Students work with the horses to retrain them for riding. An extra riding option exists for students in the program in joining the Drill Team Club. Members practice throughout the year and perform at venues around the state at horse shows, fairs and racetracks demonstrating the versatility of the Standardbred horse. The students on the team choose music that matches the tempo and rhythm of the horses’ trot and express a theme. The coach choreographs a routine and the team practices elements of that until it all fits together.
“Stay in line!” is the first rule of drill team. The first lesson riders learn is that no matter what, they need to keep their spacing and stay straight. Presenting a unified picture is the objective. Regardless of whether the horse is trotting, pacing or cantering, the audience will only notice the spacing and cohesiveness of the group. In order to maintain spacing, riders may have to shift up or down a gear depending on the position in the ride.
Riders on the inside of a turn have a smaller radius and need to back off, while a rider on the outside of the turn has to hustle so that the pair appears to make a turn as one unit. Hours of practice can go into making one seamless corner. Any drill team ride is a challenge but add to that, horses that were formerly trained to go as fast as necessary to get to the front of the line and drill team becomes a foreign language. The UMaine team has now got to convince their horses to stay together. No passing. It takes patience and persistence on the part of each rider to understand the horse’s competitive nature and past experience, and then work with that horse to establish trust and respect.
No horse can be forced to perform, nor can a horse be restrained and fought. Through their work with the drill team, UMaine students find ways of working with not only each horse’s personality, but each teammates’ personality. No rider is the star on a drill team. Every one of the riders is vital and they all must work together. Drill team is not a competition. No one is going to be first. No one will win. No one will stand out. The group is the goal.
The UMaine Drill Team may not be jumping through flaming hoops, but the dedication of the riders and willingness of the horses shows in every ride they do. Catching one of their performances is definitely a treat, whether or not one is an avid rider. Unlike watching most equestrian events, where some knowledge of the sport is required, drill team appeals to a mass audience.
Keep your eyes and ears open for the UMares and their riders this summer. They will be out promoting the Standardbred horse, the University of Maine and the drill team club. The horses can be visited on their home turf any day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Witter Farm.