The equestrian world has vastly evolved throughout the years for young riders trying to juggle the demands of practice and competition and schoolwork. The age of lugging textbooks, notebooks, pens and pencils to horse competitions held during the school year is gone. New technology allows for students to be connected to the classroom while competing in the sport they love. A trio of Buffalo sisters, MacKenzie, Delaney and Reilly Hamill have each experienced firsthand the balance of school and horse riding that has been made easier by today’s technology.
All three girls participate in the prestigious FTI Winter Equestrian Festival at Wellington in West Palm Beach, Fla., better known as simply “Wellington.”
“Wellington is the equestrian circuit where riders come from all over the world,” said the girls’ mother, Vicki Gordon Hamill. “[The girls] have friends from all over the world and the States, as the majority of the riders are not from Florida.”
The 12-week circuit is essentially an international equestrian event that many young riders dream of attending.
MacKenzie, 17, is a junior at Nichols School and has been competing since age 8, and riding since she was 4 years old. MacKenzie had been a contender in circuits in places like Mississippi and Ocala, Fla., until three years ago when she made the switch to Wellington. Accepted at Nichols as a sophomore, MacKenzie flies to Florida every Thursday evening to show the long weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday), and flies home on Sunday night in order to be at school the following day.
“My dad went to Nichols, and I really wanted to come here,” MacKenzie said. “It seemed like a great school, and it is really supportive. I just have to handle school with keeping my grades up and riding.
“My mom used to ride when she was younger,” added MacKenzie. “I went to Canada to a farm of a family friend when I was little, and I knew that I wanted to ride.”
Vikki Gordon Hamill still remembers the days of bringing school materials to extensive equine competitions such as Wellington. The Hamills have been going south to pursue their sport for the past eight years, and originally they had to pack a suitcase of books and lists of schoolwork that needed to be completed. Communication consisted of lots of faxing and mailing between the girls, their tutors and their schools in order to make their complex situation work.
“Usually I would get all my work in different folders for each class and then do it when I was down there,” said Delaney, 15, a freshman at Nichols.
Delaney has been riding since she was 2 years old, and showing at Wellington for three years.
“I always loved animals, horses and dogs,” she said.
Delaney also remembers going to Canada when she was young. “When my mom brought me up to Canada,” she said, “the first time I saw the horses I fell in love. I knew that I wanted to ride horses.”
Delaney keeps connected to the classroom in a unique way. Her physics teacher, Josh Ring, wears a special headpiece throughout his class that allows Delaney to upload everything that happened in class. Everything that is written on the Smart Board rides the cyber airwaves right to her laptop so that she doesn’t miss a beat while at Wellington.
“I can watch the class as he is teaching it,” said Delaney. “Nichols also has a website, Schoology.”
“The teachers each have their own pages, where they post all their notes,” said MacKenzie. “You just have to make up your tests and stay on top of it.”
MacKenzie and Delaney are not the only Hamills to figure out how to communicate with the classroom while maintaining a busy riding schedule. Ten-year-old Reilly, the youngest of the three sisters, is a fourth-grader at Elmwood Franklin School. Reilly keeps up with her social studies class by utilizing the popular application FaceTime on an iPad.
“She tunes into class and sits through the class, listening and answering questions,” said Vicki Gordon Hamill. “This was new to us this year, and it was great. I really have to commend her, and MacKenzie and Delaney, too.”
“Educators really have changed with the times,” she said. “It’s really very interesting how people change. At one point Nichols really didn’t support the balance of being away for an amount of time. It does interrupt the teachers’ schedules. Elmwood Franklin (where all three girls have attended) always was very supportive of the sport and accommodated them with their riding. We are lucky to have two schools in this area that support the sport like they do. It’s amazing how the education for these young equestrian athletes has evolved with schools that are willing to change with the times. It’s a win-win situation through the education and the riding.
“The girls also have tutors in Wellington,” said Hamill. “They are there for the full amount of time. This being MacKenzie’s junior year, I didn’t want to pull her out fully for the time she spends down in Wellington. She checks in with tutors in Wellington, and takes her tests. It’s important to maintain the connection to the classroom.
“A lot of dedication goes into this sport,” she added. “My girls miss out on a lot of things that their peers regularly do. But you have to either do it or you don’t when you start investing in these creatures. There’s a lot of discipline on both parts. You get up early, do your riding, lessons and training, and then it’s your responsibility to do your schoolwork. The athletes have to make their sport work if they are truly dedicated.”
The Hamills board their horses at Stepping Stone Farm in Albany. The horses are shipped when the girls need to show them in Wellington, and they also ride some horses owned by other people in the show circuit. They do have one pony in Western New York at the Buffalo Equestrian Center on Amherst Street.
This year produced some excellent results for the Hamill girls.
“I did well this year. I had a new horse, so I was still getting the hang of him,” said MacKenzie. “I wasn’t down there training with him during the week. I improved on getting the basics down that I will hopefully be able to carry onto the pros, and I understand how the sport and everything fits together. When I turn 18, I won’t be a junior rider anymore, so by that time I hope to do the Grand Prix and compete against the top riders in the U.S.”
“I did really well actually,” said Delaney. “I ended up with two circuit champions [the highest awards]. One of these noteworthy designations was for equitation [judged on the rider’s position and riding ability rather than the horse itself] for ages 12-14, and the other was for the Children’s Jumper class. My biggest goal is to compete against the top riders in the country. I’d love to win an Equitation Final some day.”
Reilly did well showing the ponies as well.
Emily DelSignore is a sophomore at Williamsville South High School.