Tall in the saddle

by John D. Hubbard

Tami Bihuniak has ridden her love of horses to national prominence.

Actually, the Colgate junior has ridden her 17-year-old quarter horse Stacey Be True to lofty positions in American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) rankings in both the Amateur and Open Division.

"I love it. I love to compete. I love to win. I love the camaraderie. I love developing the teamwork. I love riding. I love horses," says Tami. "It's definitely in my blood. My mom rode, my grandparents rode and it's something I'll do forever."

Bihuniak is trained by her mother Naomi at their Manlius stable -- Canterwood Farm -- and competes primarily in five events over fences, in the ring and under saddle. The shows are studies in precision and athleticism. Horse and rider are judged closely on appearance, movement over the course and execution of jumps. The rider is graded on ability to control the horse through tight turns, over the jumps and while changing leads.

The shows require hours of training and equally arduous preparations -- "polished and pretty as possible," says Tami -- to look the part even before entering the ring. Competition is basically year-round with a big show at least once a month. Rankings are determined by points accumulation. Last year Tami finished in the top ten of three events in the Youth Division.

This year, competing in the Amateur Division, by mid-autumn Tami was first in the nation in working hunter and third in hunter hack and equitation over the fences. In the Open Division she was third in hunter hack and working hunter.

In October Bihuniak competed in the Quarter Horse Congress at the Ohio Expo Center, an event that drew 11,000 horses. Bihuniak finished in the top ten in three amateur events. Even more importantly, Stacey Be True, who had been skittish around so many horses last year, was calm and relaxed -- the perfect state of mind for the upcoming World Show held this month in Oklahoma City. The team also spends three weeks every year competing in Florida and takes to the road regularly to compete. "She's a busy girl," says Naomi, who oversees the operation on the family's eight acres not far from Syracuse.

"I'd like to finish in the top ten and finishing well at Congress and the World Show would really cap off the year. It has been exciting to do so well my first year in Amateurs," says Tami.

Riding three times a week, Tami and Bay -- Stacey Be True's nickname -- are constantly working to make the team better. Staying in shape is also imperative. Horses gain muscle mass quickly but lose it just as fast, which means regular exercise is vital, and not just for the mount. Most riders are lean, muscular and fit, an apt description of Bay's teammate.

For a show Bay is bathed, clipped and braided -- thick, full, long tails are the standard -- and Tami is turned out from head to toe in an exact uniform. She wears a black hunt cap, either a navy or hunter green jacket over a shirt called a rat catcher, britches, black gloves and riding boots. "A lot of it is image. You need

to look like you deserve to win the class. You can't go into the ring looking like a schlup. The judges won't even look at you."

Catching the judges' attention is important and success breeds success. Bay and Tami's strong finishes in the Youth Division led to coverage in quarter horse publications which in turn draws notice to the team. Sharp image and known quality, of course, have to be justified by strong and consistent performance. Tami manages to maintain a demanding travel schedule and regular training while aiming for medical school.

Tami rides English style and beyond the distinctive saddle and bridle she says it is "a different way to go." In a sport where each step of a horse's gait is scrutinized, the line between English and Western is clear.

Quarter horses are equally unique. An American breed, the horses have evolved from the do-everything originals to specialized animals. Forget the image of the stocky cow pony, Bay is a sleek 16 hands tall, a fancy purebred who looks every inch a champion. Horses usually begin competing on the circuit when they are three or four years old. Bay, at 17, is old but, as Tami says, it is difficult to find a horse with the ability to handle the varied challenges of competition. Originally a barrel racer, Bay has made the adjustment to hunter with a diligent spirit and an eagerness to please.

"Little girls love horses because they are pretty and majestic animals," says Tami, who began riding before she could walk and has been competing since she was four. "I appreciate how individual they are. I like to work with horses. Their personalities really make it fun. It's amazing to me how hard they will try for you."

Tami Bihuniak and Bay have built a rapport, a mutual trust that has translated into success at the highest level of their sport. "It's kind of like having a child," says Tami, "except when you get into the ring you're dependent on each other."