William & Mary

Lang stands tall in the saddle

  • A winning smile
    A winning smile  Katie Lang '18 poses with one of the trophies she was awarded by the Arabian Horse Association at the recent national competition in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Photo courtesy Liliana Nabhan
  • In sync
    In sync  Lang riding FA Patriot, aka Blueberry, in competition last fall.  Photo courtesy Pics Of You
  • Time for rest
    Time for rest  Sport Horse Nationals isn't just fun and games, Blue and Katie need their rest. When she's not competing or helping teammates, she and Blue can be found napping and eating.  Photo courtesy Katie Lang
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Greeting you as you walk into Katie Lang’s dorm room at William & Mary is a large wood and metal trophy of a horse.

“A conversation starter,” Lang ’18 calls it.

It’s actually much more than that. It’s proof positive that the 19-year-old Lang is a champion rider.

Lang, from Chesapeake, Virginia, recently earned that distinction at the U.S. Sport Horse National Championship in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she claimed national titles in dressage at the Prix St. Georges and Intermediate I levels.

Prix St. Georges is at the middle stage of the international sport-horse level. Intermediate 1 is the second highest international level. Because of those performances, in 2016 she will compete at the Olympic level, otherwise known as Grand Prix. Although she said she won’t be “even close” to qualifying for the Olympics, getting to compete at that level “is a childhood dream.”Katie Lang

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” she said, “the fact that I did so well. I had fantastic rides at the nationals.”

For the many people who don’t know what dressage is, Lang said that a loose translation of the word would be “training.” Some people jokingly refer to it as “horse ballet.”

Competitors and their horses enter a rectangle 20-by-60 meters, ringed by stations designated by evenly spaced letters. At each station, the horse is required to perform a certain movement, with each scored from 0 to 10, the latter being the best score.

{{youtube:medium:center|Tj2GbcGSQxU, Katie Lang competing at the Williamston dressage earlier this year}}

The most famous maneuver associated with dressage is the Piaffe, where the horses literally lift their legs and dance in place.

Lang and her horse – FA Patriot, or “Blueberry,” a 17-year-old half-Arabian half-Friesian – compiled scores in the 67 range, with 70 being the acknowledged standard for an excellent performance. That continued an upward trend that began last summer when she and Blueberry had plenty of time to train.

Lang was part of the United States team that edged Canada for the gold medal in the North America International Championship last summer in Lexington, Kentucky. Standing on the medal stand and hearing her name called, she said, might be “the favorite moment in my life.”

In recognition of her representing her country, Lang is allowed to wear a USA patch on her jacket.

She and Blueberry have been together since her coach suggested four years ago that she split with a horse that was “pretty crazy,” and hook up with the more laid-back, competition-tested Blueberry.L to R: Father Ernest Lang, Katie and Blueberry, coach Kathy Rowse and mother Cindy Lang

“She said, ‘I think you’re at the level where you could learn a lot from him,’” Lang recalled. “He was almost like a schoolmaster teaching me how to be a better rider.

“I got on him, and me and Blue clicked really well. After that, he became like my best friend. Horses definitely have personalities, and people have personalities, and it’s very much about being able to find the right fit with a horse.”

Lang said it took about two years before she and Blueberry cemented the type of harmonious, effortless relationship where even her smallest movement signaled a critical command. She isn’t allowed to talk to the horse during competition, not even to tell him “good job.”

The champion's trophy“If I give the horse a command and you can’t tell I’m giving it, then I’m doing it right,” she said. “We’re supposed to make it look like we’re just sitting there. Even just shifting my weight in the saddle tells him to do something. Where I place my legs on his belly or where my legs fall can tell him a lot. Or if I squeeze the reins a certain way. If I change my posture even a little bit, they know. They’re incredibly smart animals.”

Although she cringes at the word “sacrifice,” that's exactly what she's doing to balance school – she is a double major in geology and anthropology – and riding.

Take the week-long competition in Raleigh. Lang drove to North Carolina after class on Monday, competed Tuesday then drove back to campus after an awards ceremony. She attended class on Wednesday and Thursday before driving back to Raleigh that night in order to compete on the weekend.

Even when she’s not competing, Lang and Blueberry must practice. He is put up in Suffolk, so at least once a week she’ll leave campus after a lab that ends at 5, take the Jamestown Scotland Ferry to Smithfield, drive about 90 minutes to Suffolk to see Blueberry, have a lesson from her coach, ride the horse for an hour, clean him and bond with him before making the return trip.

She’s also at the barn at least once every weekend.Lang (right) celebrating in Raleigh with her friend, Liliana Nabhan

“It’s a little difficult to get home before 11,” she said. “It’s a big commitment because it means I forgo a night of homework.

“A lot of kids at my level, my age, under 21, aspiring to the higher international levels, either take classes online or they don’t go to college. I’ve always loved school, and I didn’t want to choose between them. My parents always said that education was super important, and I’m glad I’m at a school where education is super important but close enough to home so I can also do horseback riding."