TRAVERSE CITY — Reiley Wilson is not unlike most high school athletes who aim to continue competing at the collegiate level.
She’s driven and passionate about her sport, all the while dreaming of using athletics to get a free ride to college.
While Wilson’s dream has become reality, the equestrian scholarship she received from Tennessee-Martin did not come in conventional fashion.
Wilson signed a letter-of-intent with the Skyhawks despite not having a high school team to ride with or even a horse to call her own.
“It felt amazing, especially after working 10 years for it,” said Wilson, a senior at Traverse City St. Francis. “This is what I wanted to do ever since I started riding. I’m so happy I got (a scholarship) and I finally reached my goal.”
Because she doesn't ride with the St. Francis equestrian team, Wilson got her experience over the past 10 years riding at Northern Pines Farms in Maple City, where she’s among approximately 35-40 students who come to the farm to ride. Because Wilson doesn’t have her own horse, she’s been able to get experience on young horses that were in training or on sale horses that needed to be evaluated.
“She’s trained very hard on all our sale horses,” said Melissa Hirt, owner of Northern Pines Farms. “I gave her every opportunity to work for me at the horse shows to pay for her showing expenses. This didn’t come without a price. I think what’s really unique about it is, she’s a bit of an underdog. But because of her commitment she was out here several days a week, training all the time. Her aunt (Kathy Lofquist) brought her out here, paid for a lot of her lessons, paid for a lot of her horse shows. Then I trained her up to be able to go to the horse shows, care for the horses. That’s what really got her foot through the door with other trainers recognizing what she was doing and her as a rider. They were able to give us the recommendations as well to get into a college.”
That school proved to be Tennessee-Martin, a Division 1 school located in the northwest part of the state, not far from the Kentucky border. Wilson also looked into Oklahoma, South Carolina and New Mexico, but UT-Martin proved to be where she was most comfortable. Wilson sent the school videos of her riding and she attended the school’s summer camp before getting the scholarship offer that she gladly took.
“I got to try a bunch of different horses and they saw what I could do,” said Wilson. “I’ve been looking at a lot of different schools because this is what I’ve wanted to do. They seemed like a good fit. They have a gorgeous campus. It’s really small and extremely safe. The town is based around the college. The team there is so great. All the girls are super nice and welcoming.”
Hirt said, having known Wilson since Wilson started coming to her facility at the age of 7, she wasn’t surprised she was able to earn the scholarship. Not only has Wilson trained diligently here in Michigan, but she’s also gone as far as Wellington, Florida for the Winter Equestrian Festival, where she catch-rode a horse — riding an unfamiliar horse in competition — taking a first and a third place. She’s also had success at the local Horse Shows by the Bay, including winning the $1,000 Low Children’s Jumper Classic.
“I would’ve been surprised if she wouldn’t have been asked to be on a team,” Hirt said. “She’s an excellent student. She’s been training really hard at our sport since before high school. A lot of our girls go on and we train them up and hopefully they can continue their passion in riding and working with horses through college and getting a great education that’s getting paid for. That’s really what it’s all about. There’s huge money out there for this sport.”
While not having a horse has been one of the hurdles Wilson has had to overcome, it’s actually going to be to her benefit once she gets to college.
“That’s what college equestrian is,” she said. “You go there, you draw a horse out of a hat, you get four minutes to warm up and you have to go compete. I don’t regret not having a horse at all and I’m actually happy that I got so many opportunities to ride so many different horses.”
Wilson did admit that it is difficult however, trying to compete against other riders who have a strong relationship with the horse they’re riding.
“It’s extremely difficult because I’m competing against these girls who have had these horses for years, know every single little thing that they could possibly do in the arena. Sometimes I don’t even know my horse until the day I ride it. I get to ride it once and then I go into the arena,” she said.
Hirt and Wilson give a lot of credit to Lofquist for spurring Wilson’s passion for riding and horses at an early age.
“She has loved horses her whole life and she’s an animal lover,” Wilson said of her aunt. “She noticed I liked animals when I was younger so she decided she wanted to see what would happen if she took me out and put me on a horse. She’s paid for my lessons, found the barn for me — she got us to Northern Pines. She’s awesome. She’s the nicest person you will ever meet.”
From there, Hirt has nurtured Wilson’s abilities and taken her to the level she’s at now.
“My trainer Melissa has been a huge supporter for me,” Wilson said. “She’s gotten me pretty much to where I am today.”
Hirt sees a bright future ahead for Wilson.
“She was the whole package for most of these teams,” Hirt said. “She is a straight ‘A-plus’ student, diligent to her studies. She is a very smart girl. She takes it very seriously. She’s just a person that’s always been organized, always wanted to know more. Anytime I need help at the farm she’s always there working. She’s excellent with animals, with children, with other adults. She conducts herself very much as a professional already. A very reliable person.”