Posted: June 20, 2006
With Mount Holyoke and Stanford University tied for first place going into the final team class at the Intercollegiate Horse School Association National Championships May 4-7, the MHC team's fate rested on Kyla Makhloghi '06. She was up against some of the best college equestrians in the country, including Stanford's top rider, Sarah Willeman, in the open over fences class. While some riders would have caved under the pressure, Makhloghi put in a solid performance. But so did Willeman. When the top seven riders--including Makhloghi and Willeman--were called back into the arena to await announcement of the winners, in reverse order, it was anybody's guess who would come out ahead. Suspense mounted as names were called and riders stepped up to claim their ribbons. With only the top three places left to go, neither Makhloghi nor Willeman had been pinned. Breaking the hush of anticipation, the announcer called out Willeman in third place. The Mount Holyoke riders watching from the rail burst into tears and cheers; it was instantly clear that they had beaten out Stanford for the championship. Makhloghi placed second, putting Mount Holyoke one point ahead of Stanford and Penn State, who tied for reserve championship.
Riding under pressure is nothing new for Makhloghi. "I always put a lot of pressure on myself to do well," she said. But she doesn't let nerves get the better of her. In fact, when a human physiology class recently measured the heart rates of the riding team, she found that her heart rate actually went down before she entered the ring. What goes through her mind in those moments before competition? "I concentrate," she said. "I don't think about much else. I visualize how I will ride my first jump. The rest usually follows."
Riding coach Carol ("C. J.") Law knew Makhloghi had her work cut out for her in "the pressure cooker of all classes." She recalled, "Other coaches were saying that Sarah was going to walk away with it but I just kept thinking to myself that the judges hadn't yet seen Kyla over fences and that, yes, she could beat Sarah. I was confident. Kyla knew I believed in her ability and we really didn't need to discuss too much before her class."
When Makhloghi's finish was announced, Law was helping another rider warm up and missed the initial team celebration. She joined in as soon as she could. "Kyla and I had a good hug when I got to see her and I was just so, so thrilled for her to end her senior year with such fantastic results. She deserved such an ending to her college riding career. She is an outstanding rider and I will never forget how much she helped the team over the last four years."
Makhloghi started riding at age eight at a hunter-jumper stable near her home in Putney, Vermont. Coincidentally, that stable belonged to Christina Major '89, a member of the MHC riding team that won Nationals in 1986. "She taught me everything I know," Makhloghi said. "I worked in exchange for lessons. When it came time to think about colleges, she suggested I look at Mount Holyoke. I looked here and liked it and applied early decision. That was four years ago!"
With ten years of extensive riding experience behind her, Makhloghi was already an accomplished equestrian when she arrived as a first-year student. At team tryouts that fall, coach Law picked her as one of the team's open riders, the most advanced division in intercollegiate competition. (The other divisions are walk-trot, walk-trot-canter, novice, and intermediate). She has ridden in the open division and has gone to zone finals all four years. For the past three years she has ridden in the National Championship. Sophomore year she rode well but drew a difficult mount, according to Law. Junior year she competed as an individual and a team rider in both open flat and open over fences. She cleaned up, taking two championships and two reserve championships, an experience as thrilling to her as clinching this year's championship for the team. With characteristic modesty, she emphasized that although her second place had secured the team's victory, everyone's points made the difference.
Makhloghi has gotten a lot out of her four years of team riding. "Knowing that it matters for the team gives me an extra sense of accomplishment," she said. "Being part of the team adds an element of support you don't get in individual competition. Everyone supports you whether you're good or bad." Makhloghi believes that the closeness of the Mount Holyoke team contributes to its success. "We do team-bonding exercises. It really helps you get to know everyone. Not all schools do this." She recalls being nervous and intimidated her first year, even though she came in as one of the top riders on the team. "To be chosen to ride for the team is a huge thing. You know there are others who could have been picked. It's an amazing feeling. You take nothing for granted."
The riding team would not achieve its consistent success without its stellar coaching, said Makhloghi. "C. J. knows the sport inside and out. She watches tryouts and knows where she's going to put every rider. She knows which riders to pick and how to train them. When we go to a show, we've always practiced all the things that the judges ask for and we're confident that we know what we're doing." Law is not only a terrific coach, but also a friend, said Makhloghi. "She's like a mother. She jokes and laughs with us. We meet other riders at shows and they always say, 'Your coach is so much fun.' She's respected not only in our group but among other schools." Makhloghi is also grateful for the skilled coaching of assistant coach Gilly McPhee '01. McPhee, who also rode on the MHC team, takes time from her busy schedule as a veterinary technician in Connecticut to work with the team at practices and competitions.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the riding team's success is its horses, many of which are donated to the College's Equestrian Center after successful show careers with private owners. "The quality of the school horses is amazing," said Makhloghi. "We have some of the nicest horses in any riding program. I don't know if people realize how lucky we are to have these horses. They are the best teachers."
Surprisingly, Makhloghi has never owned a horse. This has served her well in intercollegiate riding, a sport in which riders are randomly assigned horses the day of the show and have only a few minutes to warm up before they compete. "I thought not having my own horse was a disadvantage when I was growing up. But this kind of riding is perfect for someone who's never owned a horse. You just get on and figure it out."