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Unbridled success

Olivia Yukon is a national equestrian champion

Photo: Alice Crenshaw, Photo Illustration by Katelyn Grisham
Junior Oliva Yukon jumps a hurdle. Yukon has been riding for 10 years and trains extensively every week in order to achieve national recognition.

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With long brown hair and flashing brown eyes, junior Olivia Yukon carries herself around St. George’s with warmth and regularly a blanket. Bubbly and sarcastic, Yukon talks about what she loves with passion, jumping from one thought to another mid-sentence.

Training on her horse, Worthy, Yukon transforms, becoming intense and driven, described by her trainer as a leader.

Despite having ridden for 10 years, this year has been the most defining for Yukon as a rider.

“My parents told me, ‘you have one year to make it to make nationals and do the best that you can,'” Yukon said. “I was just praying to get a ribbon every time and ended up coming out national champion.”

At the Pennsylvania National Horse Show on Oct. 13, 2017, Yukon claimed the title of National Junior Hunter Champion in her division of Large Junior 3’33 15 and under, also winning the $2,500 Claire Mawdsley Scholarship, which is granted to exceptional riders who attend “brick and mortar” high schools. On Dec. 7, she was announced as 2017’s National Champion, Zone Champion and Region Champion.

Attending St. George’s, a full-time educational institution, places Yukon at a disadvantage since a large majority of riders at her level are homeschooled, giving them a nearly-unlimited amount of time to hone their craft. In order to balance both her riding and academic responsibilities, Yukon maintains a packed schedule. During the week Yukon has a riding lesson and “hacks” three days, which is a combination of stretching, riding, exercising and grooming her horse, and travels many weekends to shows. Any additional time she has is spent at school or catching up on missed work.

Olivia Yukon’s brother, senior Brendan Yukon, is amazed by his sister’s ability to balance her busy schedule.

“I think it’s impressive,” Brendan Yukon said. “If I miss one day I struggle, but she misses weeks on end and is always working on homework, always working on horseback riding.”

Being so accomplished in a non-school-sponsored sport creates an unusual set of circumstances.

“I would tell someone ‘oh, I was champion’ and it was like ‘oh, good for you,’ but I literally won nationals,” Yukon said. “It would be like soccer winning state and then going on and winning against the whole nation. That’s how big a deal it is.”

This misunderstanding not only arises from some being unaware of Yukon’s level of success but also the hard work it took to get there.

“People make fun of me all the time for riding because they think I just sit there and bend over when you go over a jump, to make it look pretty, but I really don’t,” Yukon said. “I tell my horse when to jump and how many steps are in between the jumps. I tell him when to change his lead, I tell him when to go, I tell him when to stop. It’s not just yeehaw. I ride horses.”

Not only is it a big deal that someone from St. George’s has been so successful on the national level, but it is also important for the horseback riding community in Memphis.

“There’s big [horseback riding towns] like Wellington [Florida] or Washington D.C. or New York that are big places,” Yukon said. “So the fact that someone from Memphis, a city that no one knows nationally, went there and won was absolutely insane.”

Her involvement in this sport has provided Yukon with an extended community.

“I have friends from California to New York, to Florida, to Texas, to back home,” Yukon said. “We don’t mean to meet, but we always end up showing against each other, so it’s really cool to hang out and see them.”

Although this competition season has had the highest stakes, in reality, Yukon and her fellow riders face a physical threat almost every day.

“Anytime you get on a horse you have the potential to get really, really hurt,” Yukon said,“because you could fall off, they could step on you and you could literally die.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “the rate of serious injury per number of riding hours is estimated to be higher for horseback riders than for motorcyclists and automobile racers.” Properly controlling a horse requires nuanced technique as well as great physical strength in order to not only perform well but to stay safe.

“You have to have leg strength to kick him [the horse], but you also have to have arm strength to slow him down,” Yukon said. “I look small, but I have strength. You are controlling a 1000 pound beast beneath you.”

Yukon trains at Spring Mills Farm with owner and head trainer Mr. Dave Pellegrini and assistant trainer Ms. Naomi Gillen.

“It has been so much fun watching Olivia get better and better every time she comes to the showring,” Ms. Gillen said. “As a trainer, I had to be tough on her about many things, but she rallied to the pressure and now is someone I can count on to be prepared every single time.”

Spending so much time training, Yukon has also formed a connection with her horse Worthy.

“My horse knows my car when I pull into the barn, he knows my voice and gets so excited when he sees me,” Yukon said. “He’s awesome, he’s really really big, and he’s brown, and he’s so cute.”

Yukon has enjoyed her success, in particular with her horse.

“Just being able to do it with my horse, not with just some stranger’s horse,” Yukon said.“Everything I’ve done, everything I’ve worked for three and a half years has been with the same horse, and now all that hard work has finally paid off.”

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