Laura Morton confidently rode her perky gray horse, Phoenix, around the indoor ring at Potomac Horse Center, taking the low jumps one by one. Shoulders squared, reins held firmly in her small hands, she wove the cantering horse in a steady rhythm through the course while the judge made notations on her pad.
Clad in their blue team jackets, Laura's friends watched in almost reverential silence, their hands pressed together in prayer. If Laura, 15, landed a ribbon, Rockville's Thomas S. Wootton High School would leap into first place in the Inter-School Horse Show, a competition among Washington area schools.
"Everything stops when you've got a rider going," said sophomore Jaime Neaman, 15, after Laura finished to applause.
Added her classmate, Sara Michael, 16, "When they go over a jump, you go over a jump" in your head.
Although Laura, who already had won two ribbons that day, did not place in the jumping category, she shrugged off the loss. "My horse was better than I expected," she said quietly after dismounting.
As it turns out, Wootton, which placed second at a show in September, won the competition last week. And to show off their accomplishment, the girls wore their equestrian outfits, tan britches and dark jackets, to school one day.
This is exactly the kind of team spirit that Devereaux Raskauskas hoped for when she started the Inter-School Horse Show five years ago. Raskauskas's older daughter, Jennifer, had organized a riding club at her high school, the Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, but no venue was available for the girls to compete as a team.
So her mother hooked up with Potomac Horse Center, a Gaithersburg stable owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and created a competition. The three annual shows are open to public and private middle or high schools in the area that produce a team of three to 12 riders.
The elder Raskauskas, of Potomac, said her goal was twofold: to offer the riders an arena to compete in and to recognize their athletic ability. The first year, a handful of students from nine schools showed up. At the last meet Nov. 7, 119 students from 20 schools competed.
Most of the schools are in Montgomery County with a sprinkling of participants from the District and Northern Virginia, including the Madeira School in McLean and Swanson Middle School in Arlington.
Jennifer Raskauskas, 19, now a sophomore at Bucknell University, came home for the September show and watched her alma mater place third, the best the school has done since the competition started.
"That to me was totally worth all the work" of persuading administrators at Holy Child to support a team, she said. "No one really told me no, but I saw some people didn't think it would last very long." Now there is talk among organizers of expanding the one-day competitions to two days to accommodate all the riders who want to participate.
Even beginners compete at the Inter-School Horse Show, something that sets the competition apart from other horse shows. Raskauskas felt it was important for everyone to feel welcome even if it meant a long day for the judge, who starts evaluating contestants at 9 a.m. and continues until after 6 p.m. The fact that Potomac Horse Center rents its animals for the day also makes it easier for more students to take part in the shows.
Regardless of their skill levels, the students are united in their love of horses. "It's that black stallion dream," said Sara, referring to the ever-popular equine tale "Black Beauty."
Lauren Healy's parents have a photograph of her at 18 months atop a pony, a big smile planted on her face. "We should have known," said her mother, Ellen, with a mock sigh. Lauren is now a freshman at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, and her life revolves around horses.
Three days a week, the 14-year-old visits Ridgefield Farm, a stable in Damascus, for lessons and to groom her horse, Simply Red, which she shares with her sister, Kate, 12. On many weekends, she travels to horse shows with her trainers, Alexandra and Brian Gruber, to compete. No other high school activities interest her. "My dad thought it was a fun thing--and we'd grow out of it," Lauren said.
Instead, the Healy girls have fallen deeper in love with horses. Now Lauren's friend and classmate Abby Smith, 14, rides at Ridgefield, too. Although the girls find time on weekends to see other friends, "during the week it's like barn, homework, bed," Abby said. "It's a lot of work, but it's fun."
Participating in the Inter-School Horse Shows is particularly fun for young horse lovers because it gives them a chance to socialize with others who understand their passion for riding. The shows also give students the opportunity to compete as a team, instead of for themselves, which is how horse shows usually work.
The students often arrive early at the horse center, even if they don't compete until the afternoon. "This is the most relaxed show I do all year," said Rachel Sharrow, 15, captain of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase team. "This is just for fun."
Her best friend, Georgetown Day School student Catherine Cullen, 15, nodded in agreement. "If I were to lose this, I would be like, 'Oh well,' " she said.
The two friends aren't too disappointed about their individual results in this show--if they have an off day, their team can still win--but they are frustrated by people who don't consider riding a real sport, even though it's an Olympic staple.
People think riding doesn't take any effort, said Catherine. "The idea is that what you do is invisible," she added.
Iris Levin, 17, who is captain of the team at Bethesda's Washington Waldorf School, confronts this attitude with a T-shirt that says: "Some People Don't Believe Riders Are Athletes. But We Know Better."
Of the dozens of schools in the Washington area, only about 30 have formed riding clubs or teams, Raskauskas said. Schools vary in their requirements for members. Some teams must have a teacher-sponsor, while others are run by parents and students. At Holy Child, team members must take at least one weekly riding lesson; at Wootton, team members need only be interested in horses.
Students pay their own way at shows. The entry fee is $8 per class (students can compete in up to three classes); renting a horse costs $10 per class--or up to about $60 a student. That is significantly less than at other competitions, which often cost several hundred dollars for entrance fees, travel and hotels. Through bake sales and sponsorship, teams often raise money for jackets, horse blankets and saddle pads embroidered with school names.
The Barrie School team boasts a slight advantage in building camaraderie. Students practice with the school's 13 horses at the Silver Spring campus most weekends. The woman who founded the school loved animals, coach Paige Howe said.
"The school is very supportive of us," she said, adding that it's rare for a school to give that kind of support because of the expense of horses.
A host of Barrie parents attended the recent Inter-School Horse Show, including Emil Skodon, father of Christine, 13, who won several ribbons. "I don't even like horses. But I like my daughter," he said with a smile.
Said Howe: "It's kind of becoming like a football team. You come out, you watch, you socialize."
For the students, however, the socializing mostly takes place in clumps of girls. Although horseback riding is a coed sport, few boys participate in the inter-school shows.
"They hit fifth grade and realize it's uncool to wear tight pants and tall boots," Howe said with a shrug.
But the girls don't seem to care about the scarcity of boys--they only seem to have eyes for the horses.
The next Inter-School Horse Show is May 7 at Potomac Horse Center, 14211 Quince Orchard Road, Gaithersburg. For information, call Devereaux Raskauskas at 301-948-1244.