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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Seniors lead Texas A&M equestrian team through unusual season

Photo by FILE

Senior Rhian Murphy was voted a team leader at the equestrian team’s annual banquet in May 2020.

It was a heartbreaking end to the 2020-2021 season for the No. 5 Texas A&M equestrian team when the Aggies were narrowly defeated by No 4. SMU in the quarterfinals of the NCEA Championships this month in Waco.
The loss ended the Aggies’ season at 4-6. It was an unusual season spent battling COVID-19, contact tracing and a shorter schedule than previous years against tough SEC competition. Through it all, 14 senior team members led and coached one another and mentored underclassmen teammates. The silver lining may be seniors Caroline Dance and Rhian Murphy’s decisions to use their extra year of eligibility to pursue a championship next year.
The Aggies received consistent support from their senior leaders throughout the year, a factor assistant coach Abby O’Mara said contributed to the team’s growth and improvement.
“Every competition, people wanted to know what they needed to do to get better,” O’Mara said. “They leaned on each other to become better riders. They are so vocal with each other. I’ve loved working with all of them and just allowing them to coach each other and help one another in practice.”
On the western side, 10 seniors performed in Reining and Horsemanship. On the English side, four made up the jumping seat team who perform in Flat and Fences, including Dance and Murphy.
Murphy and Dance are veteran athletes at A&M now, but it was a different story four years ago. From Vermont and Pennsylvania respectively, the two seniors mustered up the courage to leave home for Texas in order to compete at one of the highest levels of the sport. They describe that decision as one of the best of their lives.
“After my first visit, I knew my heart was 100 percent set on it,” Dance said. “This is my school. This is where I’m going to go, this is where I’m going to spend the next four years of my life.”
Murphy recalled feeling overwhelmed entering college as a freshman and representing A&M as a starter on the team. Four years later, Murphy and Dance have been described by peers and coaches as leaders for their willingness to go the extra mile for the team, especially the underclassmen.
“I just try to relate to them,” Murphy said. “I tell them I was there, I felt all of those exact things. I try to be someone they can talk to about that. On meet day, I try to figure out what they all need to feel ready for competition, and I have a ritual I do with them before we go out to compete.”
The difficult season offered the seniors plenty of teaching opportunities, something jumping seat sophomore Kaitlyn Lovingfoss said she was particularly thankful for. Lovingfoss struggled when she found herself sidelined due to contact tracing in the middle of the season, but her senior teammates were able to offer support.
“To watch my team perform without me, I felt like I wasn’t contributing in ways I know I could have,” Lovingfoss said. “The seniors were definitely there for me and supported me when I was coming back from that.”
When cleared for competition, Lovingfoss said her senior teammates offered to stay in the barn late one night before a meet in order to make sure she felt as prepared as possible. O’Mara said the two seniors have been leaders since their first year at A&M.
“They’re all natural leaders; they know how to be there for each other and for their teammates,” O’Mara said. “They just put the team first. The team, the horses, they just put it all first, and I’m lucky to have them.”
O’Mara is a renowned rider in her own right having earned All-American honors from the NCEA during her collegiate career as a Georgia Bulldog. She arrived at A&M in 2017 alongside the freshman class that included Murphy and Dance. Their shared experiences navigating new roles in College Station allowed them to grow close as they learned the ropes together, Murphy said.
O’Mara is known for her open-door policy within the team. Riders can go to her and speak openly about their performance on the team or any problems. Dance said the dynamic makes the team feel comforted and supported by its coaches.
“She definitely is a mentor and a coach to us, but in the times when we need her she is also our friend,” Dance said. “She knows how hard it can be sometimes, and she’s really there for us. She pushes us to be the greatest.”
O’Mara said she has developed a close relationship with Murphy and Dance. She describes Murphy as a kind and caring teammate who is willing to push her teammates to ensure they can be their best. She describes Dance as a compassionate animal lover and as a leader by example. She notes the two women have had different styles of leadership.
“Rhian and Caroline are both leaders, but in different ways,” O’Mara explained. “Rhian is more vocal and a bit more of a rah-rah cheerleader, and Caroline is more of a quiet, extremely dedicated and passionate person who always gets it done.”
The COVID-19-affected season did offer one major change for NCAA senior athletes — an extra year of eligibility — and Murphy and Dance have both opted to stay to continue their quest for a national championship next year.
Murphy’s parents were quick to back her decision to extend her eligibility and attend graduate school at A&M to study industrial organizational psychology. Her father, John Murphy, said he is excited to see his daughter perform in what will hopefully be a season with fewer restrictions.
“She’s made a conscious decision to step back from the captain role and help bring up the next generation of leaders on the team,” John Murphy said. “She’ll play a contributing role instead of a leading role.”
Dance and Rhian Murphy can learn from their experience this year and use it to propel them forward as they look forward to next season, said Alaina Murphy, Rhian’s mother.
“These girls are so honest and so supportive with each other and they’re there for each other whether they win or lose,” Alaina Murphy said. “They would love to go as far as they can and win a championship, but they’re going to support each other from beginning to end.”
Regardless of what happens in their final season, Dance and Rhian Murphy both plan to continue riding horses after graduation, even if not at the competitive level.
“Horses will always be a part of my life,” Rhian Murphy said. “I somehow always find them, no matter where I am.”
Both seniors had mixed emotions watching teammates graduate in May and knowing they will be the last of their class to graduate this time next year.
“I’m super happy about the relationships I’ve made; I’m just glad I got another year because I am not ready to leave,” Dance said. “It all just flies by so fast, but I’m excited to finish out my career riding. This is going to be my last big hurrah.”

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