Horse riding may be the special skill that gets Cassidy Mihailidis into her dream college, UC Berkeley.
Mihailidis has an edge over her peers jockeying for highly coveted college admissions slots now that she's a member of one of the new elite equestrian teams in the East Bay.
"The (team) program allows you to compete almost as if you're in college," she said. "My hope is that this will get me ready for doing (team riding) through high school. I'm hoping to do something bigger like the UC Berkeley team."
Mihailidis, a seventh-grader at San Ramon's Pine Valley Middle School, is on the Diablo Equestrian Team for East Bay middle and high school students. The other team is exclusive to students at the private Athenian School in Danville. Both teams started in September with seasons that run for most of the school year.
The Diablo and Athenian teams are affiliated with the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA), a national group founded in 2002 to introduce students to equestrian sports. The Diablo and Athenian teams compete solely in English-style riding.
"It brings legitimacy to the equestrian sport in high school," said trainer Hilary Johnson, who coaches both teams. "In Europe, you get giant crowds going to watch show jumping there like you would at football games here."
Mastering the skill of horse riding also gives students a competitive edge when they apply to college, Johnson noted.
"Colleges are getting harder and harder to get into," she said. "If you have unusual extracurricular activities, the schools look at that. (The schools) see this as being an alternative sport."
While some West Coast colleges such as Stanford and Berkeley have equestrian teams, the sport is even bigger at East Coast schools in states with deep equestrian roots. One Diablo team member, Sydney Johnson (no relation to Hilary), has already been recruited for the riding team at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.
"I'm planning to become a horse trainer, but I want to experience competing at the college level," said Johnson, a junior at Pleasanton's Foothill High School. "The IEA program opens doors to different colleges."
Riding on a school team is markedly different from competing in horse shows as an individual, coach Johnson said. Riders in private shows ride their own horses and use their own saddles. Students on school teams compete on saddles and horses provided at competition -- horses they've never met or ridden.
"It's more challenging than competing on your own animal," she said. "If you draw a really bouncy horse, it's going to affect your effectiveness as a rider." Team riding also makes the sport accessible to more students, Johnson said.
"It's a nice opportunity for kids who otherwise couldn't do this," she said. "It doesn't cost nearly what it costs to have your own horse." That doesn't mean it's free to be on a school team, she said. Students must pay for riding lessons, competition fees and their own helmets, boots and riding clothes. Expenses can range from $900 to more than $2,000 per school year.
One unique aspect of horse riding, Johnson noted, is that the rider's equipment has a brain.
"Believe it or not, a horse can wake up on the wrong side of the bed," she said. "It's a part of our sport that's different from any other sport and more challenging. It'd be like if your tennis racket had a brain and you went to swing left and it swung right." Riding unfamiliar horses is a challenge that improves riding skills, student Sydney Johnson said.
"It's a lot harder," she said. "You don't know how that horse responds. You don't get any background info, like if he's moody. If you're riding your own horse, you know all the buttons to push."
Mihailidis, 12, agreed that riding unfamiliar horses is more difficult than she expected.
"It's nerve-racking because you don't know the horse or what it's going to do," she said. "Once you're out there, it's a lot of fun. It's really improved my riding skills." It's crucial for schools to offer sports that go beyond the basics, said Eric Niles, Athenian's head of school.
"It's important for schools to foster a passion for activities for a lifetime of fitness," Niles said. "That's really part of our mission. We take pride in a great percentage of our kids participating in sports. This happens to be a passion of a subset of those kids. It's something they can do for the rest of their lives." Students on the Athenian and Diablo teams ride through coach Johnson's Rose Hills Stables, based at the Iron Horse Equestrian Center in Pleasanton. The center is owned by an Athenian family that encouraged the school to form an equestrian team.
The new teams got a crash course in organization when they recently hosted a two-day regional competition. Riders earn individual and team medals, just like in the Olympics. There's even a sportsmanship award at each competition.
Students also learn how to take proper care of a horse.
"It teaches kids responsibility," Johnson said. "There's a lot of work involved with owning a horse, between the grooming and the care. They have to prepare the horse for lessons and put them away afterward. It's a nice way for kids to come together and be exposed to things they might not otherwise be exposed to."