GVSU’s McDowell invited to AQHA Colegiate Horsemanship Challenge

GVL / Courtesy - GVSU Club Sports
Michelle McDowell

GVSU Club Sports

GVL / Courtesy – GVSU Club Sports Michelle McDowell

Danny Schwartz

When little girls are asked what they want for their birthday or for Christmas, the famous response is “I want a pony.” Most of the time, they don’t actually end up getting one. But at 3 years old, Michelle McDowell got her first pony.

Fast forward almost 20 years later, and McDowell, a Grand Valley State senior and captain of the Equestrian Club, has been selected to compete in the AQHA Collegiate Horsemanship Challenge. She will be heading to Oklahoma City in November to represent GVSU against top Division I athletes. She is the only athlete from a Michigan university to be selected.

Hailing from Wayland, Michigan, McDowell has been in the horse industry her entire life.

She started out showing at fairs in 4-H at 7 years old, competing in Allegan County and Berrien County all the way up until she was 18 years old. After that, she started showing at higher levels to challenge herself.

McDowell has worked toward this point her entire life, and is incredibly grateful that her hard work has paid off.

“When I first joined the team I knew of this competition and I wanted to know how someday I could participate in it,” McDowell said. “This is the most prestigious stage of the horse industry in the world. It’s hard to even put into words how blessed and lucky I am. I’m glad I was able to reach this goal that I had from the time I started on the team.”

The Collegiate Challenge in November will include 16 riders, eight from the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) and eight from the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA), which includes most of the tough Division I schools. The riders were selected from a board, and McDowell was selected because of her performance and first place finish at nationals in May.

McDowell became a national champion at the IHSA nationals May 5-8, and she credits it as the biggest moment of her riding career thus far.

“I was so glad I was able to share it with so many close people in my life,” McDowell said. “My best friend, all of my teammates and my mom were all there. It was an extremely special moment and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”

IHSA and NCEA riders will go head-to-head in a single elimination bracket, and it takes place over a two-day period with the finals on the last day. McDowell will be competing there with her coach, Mary Luther-Eggleston, cheering her on.

Addison Walstra, McDowell’s teammate and co-captain, believes Michelle has every chance to win in November as she did in nationals.

“She’s a very driven and competitive person, but she’s also very caring,” Walstra said. “I wouldn’t know somebody more deserving of this opportunity. The competition will be really stiff, but competition was stiff in nationals, and she won unanimously there.”

Even though she has been in the industry her entire life, McDowell isn’t going to school to be a vet or even a horse trainer. McDowell is majoring in elementary education and planning on becoming an elementary school teacher.

McDowell credits her mom as being the biggest mentor and helping hand in her success.

“When I was younger, I didn’t really understand what it took to be a competitor, and she always motivated me to keep practicing,” McDowell said. “She’s been there through the highs and the lows, the disappointment of defeat and coming out on top.

“She’s the last person that gives me a pep talk before I go in and the last person that wipes the dust off my boots and makes sure I have my hair in place. She’s really a big part of what helps me be successful.”

McDowell believes this competition will really tell which collegiate riding style produces the strongest rider. NCEA’s format is different because while GVSU is used to getting on a horse cold turkey, NCEA usually warms up prior to the competition.

It’s different than what McDowell is used to, but she is confident that with everything she has learned from her coach and through her own personal experience she’ll be able to adapt to the change.

Beside winning, McDowell’s biggest goal in November is to represent GVSU and the equestrian team to the best of her ability. McDowell is also going to make sure to take in the moment as much as she can, because this competition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Regarding her preparation for November, McDowell will be training a little differently than other competitions, as the skill level of the riders in this competition will be higher than usual.

“I’ve been riding different horses that Mary (Luther-Eggleston) has been able to provide for me,” McDowell said. “I am also planning on working with other people that have experience with the competition itself and that have been a part of it before.”

McDowell didn’t get to this point because of luck. It was hard work and drive that got her to this point.

“If people were to describe me in one word, it would probably be ‘determined,’” McDowell said. “I’m definitely the type of person who sets out goals and will put in the effort and do what it takes to achieve it. I know that I have people in my life that have motivated me to put in the required effort and everything that goes into it. I know I would not be able to become national champion and be invited to this without the support I have.”