If you like animal stories – particularly those about Grizzlies swatting Bobcats – you’re going to love this one.

It seems so improbable you just have to chuckle.

At the start of each fall semester, the University of Montana Equestrian Team walks a couple of horses onto the Oval to attract new members. Basically that’s the Grizzlies’ recruiting strategy and they’ll take just about anybody.

Now if you’re like me, equestrian stuff is pretty much a mystery. There’s horses and people riding them and hats that look sort of like licorice drops.

In college equestrian competitions, the riders compete on horses provided by the host school. Without warming up or knowing anything about the animal at all, they hop aboard and try to be perfect in events as simple as walk/trot and as advanced as fence jumping.

Keeping in mind Montana’s club team has a lot of novices, the Grizzlies set out for regionals in late March in Logan, Utah. Competing against teams that offer scholarship money, including Montana State and Utah State, Montana rode to a regional title.

“Half of our team had never competed before and a couple of them had never ridden before,” coach Katie Lufkin said. “We pulled off top-3 placings in pretty much every class, which was amazing.”

The Grizzlies actually tied Montana State – a team roughly three times as large – for top honors. From there both squads retired to a local Chili’s restaurant to await word on which would advance, by tiebreaking criteria, to the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Zone 8 Finals at Stanford.

“We were waiting for a call from the regional president,” Lufkin shared. “The call came in and our whole table was real quiet, staring at me.

“I hung up the phone and I didn’t have to say anything. We all knew. Our table exploded. The surrounding tables were totally in on it, too. That was the greatest moment of the whole thing.”

Thanks to some fast fundraising – Sarah Palin is among the team’s supporters – Montana took seven riders and a coach to Palo Alto, Calif., last weekend. Competing against teams like nine-time defending Zone champion Stanford, the Grizzlies had as much chance of winning as the local flag football team against the Griz.

But oh, what an experience, competing in a multi-million dollar facility on campus against riders on scholarship. Riding gigantic Warmbloods that were “10 times better” than anything the Grizzlies had ever ridden before.

“All of our riders had almost this cheesy grin on their faces the second they crossed into the ring, just from being so excited,” Lufkin said. “We went in with the goal of not coming in last in every one of our classes. We wanted to beat at least one rider in every class and we did. In two cases we actually beat Stanford.”

The improbable continued as Montana’s Rachel Anderson of Kalispell punched her ticket to nationals with a reserve championship in the individual flat class. She will trek to Harrisburg, Penn., for more competition in May.

“I’ve been riding since I was three,” she said, “but I decided to go to UM this year because my horse got hurt and I was done with riding.

“Then I realized Montana had an equestrian team and I thought I would join it for fun. I didn’t think it would really go anywhere.”

Well-known American horseman Pat Parelli once said a horse doesn’t care how much you know until he knows how much you care. Humans are a little like that, too.

“I’ve never actually been in a team sport before, and having this team has been really important for me,” Anderson said. “I really value the friendships most of all.”

Hmm, college competition purely for fun and friendship. What a sweet idea.

Notes: Montana’s zone-qualifying team included one male, Ethan Martin, and six women: Jessy Weiss, Kathryn Tiemessen, Makenzi Hoffman, Erin Corey, Kyndal Ploski and Anderson ... Besides competing in the individual flat class at nationals, Anderson will represent her region as a Cacchione Cup Rider. She earned that right by finishing with the highest point total in the region ... Palin plugged the UM team to her five million Facebook followers and million-plus Twitter followers. She got behind the Grizzlies because she, like Tiemessen, was involved in 4-H in Alaska.

Reporter ​Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or bill.speltz@lee.net.

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