Equestrians undefeated Merris-Dolk instills love of riding in her charges

By on February 1, 2012

By: JANET SCOUTEN Special to the Record, Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of HITS Horse Show
Carrie Purcell, Linden Hall senior and equestrian team captainPhoto courtesy of HITS Horse Show
Carrie Purcell, Linden Hall senior and equestrian team captain

For a young girl visiting Linden Hall for the first time, walking into the horse stables up on the hill can seem like a dream.

The stately horses with their freshly brushed coats and their dark, round eyes-stand much larger in real life than she might have imagined. Perhaps thinking back on all of those horse stories she devoured in the quiet of her room — books like "The Black Stallion," "Misty of Chincoteague," and "Black Beauty" — she eagerly asks her one burning question: "Can I ride?"

Happily, the answer to this question is almost always yes. At Linden Hall, a girl doesn’t have to be an expert rider to experience the equestrian program.

Thanks to the passion, expertise and leadership of Jennifer Merris-Dolk, director of riding and Linden Hall alumna, over one-third of Linden Hall students participate in the program each school year. In addition, 26 girls attend Linden Hall’s equestrian summer camps each year, which are open to any girl age 10 or older, not just Linden Hall students.

According to Merris-Dolk, this is a particularly exciting time to be a part of the Linden Hall equestrian program. Over the weekend of Jan. 21-22, Linden Hall hosted 17 riding teams on Saturday and 18 teams on Sunday, taking first place in both competitions.

Linden Hall’s riding program, while open to novices and accomplished riders alike, is a member of the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA), an organization whose mission is to introduce students in private and public middle and secondary schools to equestrian sports and to promote and improve the quality of competition and instruction. With IEA student-riders on over a thousand teams across North America, just 500 of the competitors qualified for the National Finals in 2011. Linden Hall has competed in nationals for the last five years and is one of the top-ranked teams in their zone.

Linden Hall Senior Emma Callahan was the high-point champion rider on Saturday. On Sunday, Freshman Carrie Myers was the upper school’s high-point champion rider, and seventh-grader Josie Colantoni was the high-point middle school champion rider.

Both teams are now qualified for the regional championships to fight for a chance to continue on to Zone Finals. The team had to come from behind for the win, but by the end of the day, they were up 14 points from the reserve champion team.

"This is the first time in the riding team history that we have sat undefeated," announced Merris-Dolk. "We have been ranked first in the zone frequently, and seventh nationally. We’ve won quite a few shows during the seasons, but in there have always been a few shows that we have pinned second or third."

This year, they have been first all the way.

Yet, even with such impressive and experienced riders as Carrie Purcell, Mackenzie Majeskie, Katie Miller, and Olivia Gibney helping to establish the team’s undefeated record, Coach Merris-Dolk continues to find great joy through introducing new girls to riding.

As an instructor with over 15 years of professional experience riding and training, Jennifer’s own love of riding spans back to when she was just a toddler.

"At the age of one, I started off by riding our family dog," recalled Jen. "I was always climbing on her back, grabbing her ears and trying to bounce up and down. Around the age of three, my parents decided to save the dog and get me on a pony."

Her riding career took off from there, starting with riding lessons through a family friend and trainer, Dick Maurette.

"He had a lot of patience," Jen remembers. "Working with someone as young as I was at the time is not easy."

In addition to her excellent riding skills, Jen also seems to have learned this lesson of patience. Her ability to teach anyone at any level of riding and to take her to the full extent of her ability is unparalleled.

Beyond just teaching students how to ride, Jen’s emphasis as an instructor is on instilling true horsemanship skills through commitment and hard work. In addition, Jen asserts that the rewards of riding extend far beyond the training ring or competition arena. She believes the principles of determination, responsibility, teamwork and poise that students acquire through the riding program are assets that are invaluable to the educational process.

"When one of my riders graduates from Linden Hall, I believe they walk away with a lot of important lessons for life," she explains. "What makes a girl a great equestrienne is dedication, passion, excitement. And all of those things are what makes a great adult-it makes them successful in life."

These qualities have certainly made Jen successful. Spending her childhood growing up in Lititz, Jen transferred to Linden Hall in her ninth-grade year so that she could pursue both her equestrian and academic goals. After graduation and college, Jen went on to manage several large and prosperous horse barns; yet, when she had the opportunity in 2004 to return to Linden Hall as assistant director of the riding program, she didn’t hesitate a moment.

"I love this school," explained Jen. "So when I received the phone call about the position, I jumped at the chance. Coming back here was like coming home.

In the stable, Jen fosters that strong sense of home and sisterhood among her students: "The girls love to be on the team because there’s a lot of camaraderie. They love to be together, and we become sort of like a family."

Sixth-grade student Lauren Hughes agrees: "I think the riding program is amazing. This is my first year at Linden Hall, and I love the horses, the other riders, and our instructors. When I found out that I had made the team, I was overwhelmed with joy. Ever since then, I have developed a stronger passion for the sport, and it’s taken me farther than I could have imagined."

To learn more about riding at Linden Hall or this year’s Equestrian Summer Camps, visit lindenhall.org or contact Director of Riding Jennifer Merris-Dolk (jdolk@lindenhall.org) at 626-0089. More LINDEN HALL, page A3

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