By Cooky McClung, Kent County News
Chestertown, MD, February 28, 2003 — Shota Goto is the embodiment of the Washington College equestrian club's team. He loves horses, he enjoys each second he spends in the saddle, and he believes the club is not only one of the school's best assets, but the perfect answer to his longtime ambition.
'All my life I wanted to ride, but it was much too expensive to even think about doing in the city,' said the 20-year-old sophomore, who grew up in Tokyo. 'When I found out that I could join a club right here at the college to ride horses, I was very excited about it. The first time I got on a horse out at Airy Hill Stables,' he searches for the English translation; 'I cannot explain the feeling. And it is the same every time I ride.'
Goto, whose parents attended the University of Pennsylvania, began learning English at 12 years old. By age 15, he had decided to come to the United States to attend college.
'I was most interested in studying psychology, which is my major, and to learn better English, which I hope I'm doing,' Goto said. 'After high school, I was given a choice of 20 American schools, and I picked Washington College.'
After arriving in the United States in 2001, Goto spent the summer at the University of Toledo in Ohio taking crash courses in American culture.
'I was part of a group of 15 Japanese students who were all going to different colleges. We went to Toledo to learn some about living in America,' said Goto, 'because it is very nice, but very different from Japan.'
While he enjoyed the Ohio school, Goto said he was glad to come to Chestertown. 'Toledo was a little scary,' he confided. 'There were places I didn't feel so safe. Not like here.'
But he admits adjusting to the American way of life in a small college town turned out to be more difficult than he'd anticipated. 'It was hard for me to make friends,' he said frankly. 'I didn't have a roommate my first year, and although I'd studied English grammar and I'd read English a lot, learning to speak it in conversation was hard,' Goto said. 'In places like the dining hall, where a lot of people were talking all at once, I had trouble understanding the conversation. So it was pretty hard.'
Then he discovered the new riding club and life got a whole lot easier and a lot more fun. Ironically, the push a year and a half ago to form a team capable of competing in the prestigious nation-wide Intercollegiate Horse Show Association originated with Caitlin Patton, then a 14-year-old home-schooled student who was auditing classes at the college. With a plan in place to enter the college that fall, Patton believed being a member of a competitive riding club and majoring in writing would allow her to combine her two loves, and allow her to continue showing her horses. Patton approached Washington College professor Kate Moncrief, also an experienced rider, who agreed to become their faculty advisor. From that moment, the club took form. And took off.
With only a handful of riders who had show experience under their belts, and many more, like Goto, who had never actually been on a horse, the club began honing their competitive edge under the tutelage of coach Sandy Griffiths. A graduate of the Fulmer School of Equitation in England, and an instructor at several top Maryland stables, Griffiths understood the odds of working with a less-experienced team. But, despite their collective lack of experience, Griffiths kept her eye on the prize, envisioning her team as competitive challengers. Last year the fledgling club finished the season in sixth place in its region, beating many larger, more- established programs. More than half their riders advanced to the regional championships, and student Annette Bangert led the team to its first appearance in the IHSA National Championship.
'They've done an incredible job in a very short time,' said Griffiths, who says the club currently includes several 'A' show circuit riders and has drawn applicants eager to attend Washington College because of the riding team.
In addition to making impressive competitive strides in less than two years, the riding club has been the impetus to add a 14-week basic horsemanship course, including riding lessons, to the college's curriculum. Geared to novices, the course is open to riders and non-riders.
Last year several team members added another dimension to their club through an innovative method of fund-raising. Several members, including Kerri Davis and Zena Hense, spent many a chilly night on 'baby watch' during foaling season at Thornmar Farm, one of the country's premier thoroughbred breeding farms, just outside Chestertown.
Currently in the upper rankings of its 14-school region, Washington College hosts its first IHSA show with the University of Pennsylvania team on Sunday, March 2 at their training base, Crimson Stables on Route 291 (Morgnec Road.) Nationally renowned trainer Phil Ake, who has horse farms in Church Hill and New York, and his assistant, Jen Shaw, have offered their expertise to school riders and horses, and have provided equipment and valuable technical advice for Sunday's show, which is expected to host at least a dozen teams.
'This show is a very big deal for us,' said Griffiths. 'It's taken a tremendous amount of effort and coordination, and we're counting on it to be very successful.'
Although he's still a long gallop from inclusion in the top tier of their riders, Goto, who remains one of the club's strongest supporters, hopes to compete on Sunday.
'I'm not experienced yet, and I just walk and trot right now,' Goto explains. 'I'm not very good at riding yet. But I always have a lot of fun on a horse.'
The IHSA show begins at 9 a.m. on March 2. The event is free and the public is invited to attend.