Of all the thousands of students packing up to go to college this month, most have one thing they can't leave behind: the perfect pair of jeans, the iPod, the Bible, the fake ID.
For Kara Clissold, that one thing is her horse. When Hop Ashore was accepted to Randolph-Macon Woman's College this spring, she sent in her deposit.
"He definitely knows," she said, reaching out and rubbing his chin. She walked back to the barn to get the last of his things, piling bridles over her shoulder. Her mom unscrewed the brass nameplate from the front of his stall, rubbed the dust off and held it for a moment, looking at it.
Like every other freshman, Clissold, 18, is a little nervous about leaving home. But she's more worried about Hop: Will he like the food there? Make new friends? Measure up?
During campus tours last year, her mother asked her if she could imagine living there. Clissold said, "If my horse could be happy here, I'm sure I could be happy."
And so with one large borrowed trailer, one new-to-them used pickup truck, one car, a bunch of hay and a zillion boxes, they set off Monday morning from their Bel Air, Md., home toward Interstate 95, the Capital Beltway, Lynchburg, Va., and their futures.
Clissold isn't the only student bringing a horse to freshman orientation. In a region known for its hunt country and racetracks, many schools have equestrian programs, and some allow about 15 students to bring their animals each year.
Not that Nancy Kreiter, Clissold's mother, knew that. As a biology professor at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, she advises students on their courses and graduate schools -- so she thought she would be a big help to her daughter when it came time to apply to colleges.
But Clissold never seemed very interested in the schools her mother suggested, places such as Vassar and Amherst and Swarthmore. "She balked at applying," Kreiter said.
Kreiter looked through a Mount Holyoke College brochure, trying to figure out why that school appealed and the others didn't. That's when she saw photos of horses, and it hit her: She was talking about academics. Her daughter was considering only schools with equestrian programs.
When her parents gathered photos for a graduation page this spring, they couldn't find any of Clissold without a horse. As a toddler, she played with hobby horses. She rode ponies at camp. She trained her dog to do jumps in the back yard, mucked out stalls at a nearby farm, took riding lessons, saved money.
When she first rode Hop Ashore, a 15-year-old chestnut thoroughbred with a white blaze on his nose, she didn't like him. He had been a racehorse, and maybe he missed the track; he was ornery, and he didn't know how to jump.
But when she looked up his race records, she saw that every time a certain jockey was on his back, Hop Ashore won. At the stable in Joppa, Md., where Clissold worked and took lessons, numerous people were riding him, and he wasn't happy, said Kreiter, who studies animal behavior. "He's a one-person horse."
Together, Clissold and Hop Ashore learned to compete in hunter-jumper events, and four years ago, her parents surprised her at Christmas: Hop was hers.
So this spring, she had narrowed her choice of colleges to two: Sweet Briar College (which has a "riding" link smack in the middle of its home page) and Randolph-Macon, where more than one in every eight students rides and the campus has a 100-acre equestrian facility with jumping arenas.
She was accepted to both. But Hop Ashore got a rejection letter from Sweet Briar. "I knew he wasn't quite the caliber of the horses that were accepted," Clissold said.
Randolph-Macon seemed even more elite. And only six horses could get in.
J.T. Tallon, director of the riding program, watched the video of Hop Ashore walking, trotting, cantering, jumping. He thought, "What a marvelous horse." At Randolph-Macon, he said, Clissold could learn how to get the most out of Hop.
Clissold forwarded the acceptance e-mail with a short note: "See, Mom, Hop can go to college!"
She gave him an extra carrot at the barn that day. He seemed pleased with that, she said.
Kreiter was relieved that the horse wasn't taking her daughter to some lousy school with a great riding program. Clissold's tuition is covered -- she was awarded a full academic scholarship, which she didn't accept because her mom's college has a tuition exchange program. So the family can afford the $3,500 per semester for board, riding lessons and competition.
Kreiter knows that her daughter, who's quiet and smart, will work hard and do just fine. Then there's Hop.
"I am kind of nervous about how he's going to do in college." The type of riding is different from what they have been doing, she said, judged not just for speed and clearing the jumps. The rider's position and control, nuances of style, are more important in hunter seat equitation.
The transition might be tough, Clissold said. "Some horses when they travel don't like the taste of the new water and won't drink, or they don't like the taste of the hay, or the grass makes him sick," she said.
She bought Hop a new saddle, new pads, new bridle. "He got a whole new outfit for college," Kreiter said. Last week, she finally got her daughter to buy new jeans. And flip-flops for the shared showers in the dorm, a needle and thread, teacups and hot cocoa mix. She learned how to iron.
By the beginning of this week, Clissold had filled boxes and tubs with grooming tools, brushes, saddle soap, leg wraps and bandages. She had tossed some clothes into a couple of suitcases and decided to leave behind the plush horses and the show ribbons pinned up in a solid line around the wood paneling in her basement room at the family's brick ranch house.
Her parents kept saying, "Have we got the -- ?"
They lugged a few bins out to the truck and headed for the rutted dirt roads of the farm.
Clissold brought Hop Ashore out of the dim, dusty barn and over to the trailer, patting his neck and murmuring, "It's okay, it's okay." He balked, skeptical.
She kept pulling him in, trailer clattering and bouncing under his hooves as he reared, writhed around and trotted quickly back out. She pulled him back in. He hurried back out. Again. Each time, he was a little calmer. Then she let go a little, and he pranced right in.
"He'll be fine," she said. They are bringing some grain from home, just in case he doesn't like college hay. He'll get used to the new horses at the college stable. He'll learn. He'll be fine.
Besides, they're both coming home for winter break.