Stonington Borough, CT
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ASHAWAY — The Brayman sisters had the rides of their lives a week ago and came home as national champions.
Madison, a 19-year-old Chariho High senior and Abigail, 15, a charter school freshman, each won championships at the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) Hunt Seat National Finals in Springfield, Mass. on May 16-18.
Madison accepted, just weeks earlier, a substantial scholarship offer to ride for the equestrian team at New Mexico State University.
The sisters clearly have mastered not only the art of horse riding, but also the challenges of juggling and balancing their academic and equestrian lives.
Madison won the Varsity Open overall individual championship (combining courses over fences and in the flats), earning her the distinction of being the leading hunt seat rider in the nation among those competing at the upper school (high school) level.
Abigail won the Varsity Open Over Fences individual championship.
“Abigail is best in jumps,” their mother (owner and chief trainer at Hunter Ridge Farms) Wendy Brayman said. “Madison is strong in both jumps and flats, and, of course, has more maturity.”
Abigail and Madison qualified for the hunt seat nationals by their performance at IEA regional and zone finals. Abigail qualified to compete in the Varsity Open Over Fences class — on a predetermined course of required jumps. Madison qualified for the Varsity Open Flat competitions — over a flat course (no jumps) requiring selected maneuvers.
In each class, it is the rider and not the horse that is judged. To equalize the competition, the horses are provided by the host barn and are chosen for each rider by random draw for each event.
Abigail finished first among 25 riders to win the Over Fences individual championship on the first day of competition. The top five advanced to the overall championship competition.
“This was my first year in the Varsity Open class and my first time at the nationals as an individual,” Abigail said. “The other girls were from all over the country. I was happy with the win, obviously.
“I had won our zone finals to qualify for the nationals. I was confident here. I had a really good round, so I wasn’t shocked that I won.”
Madison’s journey to her overall championship was much more suspenseful. She placed fifth in the Flat individual competition, just enough to advance to the overall championship competition.
All 10 riders in the championship class competed the next day in both the jumps and flat. And all 10 stood in a line awaiting the judges’ decisions, knowing only the riders with the top three combined scores (jumps and flat) would advance to the final round.
“Waiting for the results was tense,” Madison said. “It was a countdown (from 10 on down). Abigail was eighth overall, which was a downer. I held my breath when they got to fourth. My name wasn’t called, so I made the top three.
“I had just snuck into the championship class with a fifth in the flats the day before. I felt I had nothing to lose. Our motto is ‘Do your best or die trying.’ I just nailed it.”
The judges chose to have the top three compete over fences for the final test. Madison nailed that too and walked away with the overall championship.
Madison and Abigail also competed for Hunter Ridge in the team competitions. Hunter Ridge placed sixth among upper school teams, with Abigail taking second over fences and Madison placing fourth on the flat.
Madison is going to “The Land of Enchantment” in August to attend New Mexico State University and be a hunt seat rider for its equestrian team. Only 19 Division I colleges have varsity equestrian teams— all for women. Each is limited to the equivalent of 15 full scholarships that can be spread among the team members.
Madison and her father visited the school during her April spring break. She sent in her letter of intent a few weeks ago accepting their offer of an “80-percent ride.”
“We thought they’d give some scholarship money,” her father Matthew, a science teacher at Rogers High in Newport, said. “I was shocked when they offered an 80-percent ride (about $30,000) for her freshman year, and a full ride after that based on her performance. The coach said that was the biggest offer they ever had made for a freshman rider.”
The Aggie roster this season numbered 22, with 13 riding “western” (reining and horsemanship) and nine riding “hunt seat” (over fences and flat). Six are graduating (two hunter seat and four western).
In compiling a 9-6 record this season, including a loss in the first round of the national championships, the Aggies were very strong in the western events and produced three All-Americans from that side of the roster.
“I was very late in preparing for college,” Madison said. “In November, I didn’t even know if I could graduate. My mother said ‘you will graduate.’ I waited to take my SATs until this year and I will graduate on June 13. I sent letters to all the major Division I schools and got replies from about 80 percent.
“New Mexico State was interested. We talked on the phone in March. The coach said she thought I could be the best rider on the team. It was a perfect storm for both of us. They were the only school at that late time with scholarship money. And I needed that to go.
“At first I was a little backed off (like a culture shock) with Las Cruces, but the campus is kind of secluded and I felt comfortable. I spent time on my visit with a team member from the East and she explained how she adjusted. I’m a little nervous about moving across the country, but very excited.”
Juggling and balancing
Riding at this level takes an enormous amount of time to practice and compete. Juggling and balancing priorities for riding and schooling have been enormous challenges for Madison and Abigail and their parents.
Madison attended Chariho Middle through the eighth grade, moved with her family to Woodstock, Conn., and came back to Chariho High the middle of her sophomore year. Riding cost her an extra year to graduate.
“Riding took over. I missed a full semester of school. I put riding first and school second. I was never home. It was tough, but I somehow got it done. I hated to have to make up a year. I got no help. It’s been hard.
“I rode horses 24/7. We don’t have a season — it’s year-round. The state has graduation requirements and Chariho was focused on attendance. I lost a full year. My classmates think it’s crazy, like it’s completely abnormal. Nobody understands.
“This was my first high school year that I was not above the allowed absences. And the first year where I made some school friends. I’m going to the prom. And I will graduate in June.”
Abigail may have “gone to school” on her big sister. She graduated from Chariho Middle last year. But she chose instead (by luck of the lottery) to attend the Village Green Virtual Public Charter School in Providence and is just completing its inaugural and her freshman year.
According to Village Green, it is a high school which uses a “blended learning” model of on-line curriculum and in-classroom teaching. Students are in “workshop” working with teachers about 40 percent of the time and on-line or in advisory or reading groups the other 60 percent.
“I wanted to go to this school,” Abigail said. “I could do both (riding and school). They really support my riding. They let me miss a lot of school. I can do schoolwork on the road. Everything is on-line.
“Juggling is fine. It’s hard, but I can do it.”
“We told them our riding schedule and we worked it out,” her mother Wendy said. “The deal was that when she wasn’t traveling, she must go to the school each day she’s here. That was our dream situation. They’re OK with that. It’s a model of what this school is about.
“She is a very organized person. Her sister is too. We’ve evolved (as a family) into almost a well-oiled machine.”