August 29, 2014

Medina
Partly sunny
80°F

Highland equestrian, his horse heading to Otterbein

HINCKLEY TWP. — Matthew Willham is going to Otterbein University this fall.

But he’s not going alone. He’s taking his horse with him — with the help of a major sponsor backing his equestrian career.

Michael Willham and his horse Elmgaarden Affair stand at the entrance to the trails outside the Hinckley Equestrian Center on Monday in Hinckley Township. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY LOREN GENSON)

“She can be with me at school, and then back home in the summer to compete,” the 17-year-old Highland High School senior said.

Willham won a sponsorship from Nutrena, the livestock feed manufacturer, to subsidize him and his horse, Elmgaarden Affair, as they compete in the Olympic sport called “eventing.”

Three-day competition includes dressage — guiding a horse through a series of complex maneuvers with minimal movements of the rider’s hands, legs and weight — cross country jumping and stadium jumping.

Willham said eventing is considered challenging because the horse and rider have to train for all three events.

“The stadium jumping shows that the horse, after an intense two days of events, can still go over jumps that are easily knocked down with the slightest touch,” he said.

Willham is entering his second full year of competitions. He met his horse — a mare, called “Affair” for short — during his training with Kate Coleman, who owned the horse.

“You can’t just compete on any horse,” Willham said. “It’s a partnership. They feed off you and you feed off them.”

Willham purchased the horse and continues to train under Coleman.

Affair is a Knabstrupper, a rare Danish breed numbering only about 1,500 worldwide. Affair is one of fewer than 100 horses of her kind in the United States.

Willham said Knabstruppers have the athleticism of “hot-blooded” horses like thoroughbreds combined with the calmer nature of workhorses.

“She’s sort of in between,” Willham said. “She’s got athleticism, but she’s also very sweet.”

Willham trains out of the Hinckley Equestrian Center, owned and operated by his mother, Renea.

He said he became interested in riding through his mother, who built the Equestrian Center at the corner of Ridge and Ledge roads in 2006.

His mother never rode competitively, Willham said.

“It started out as something to do for pleasure, but I really liked competing,” he said.

The Nutrena sponsorship will help Willham and Affair as they train this spring and compete throughout the summer.

In deciding to sponsor Willham, the feed company considered more than his riding ability.

Willham has a 4.4 grade-point average, which includes several advance placement courses. He also volunteers one-day a week with students who have developmental disabilities at the Victory Riding Center in Bath.

“The horses seem to have a special sense with (the students),” he said. “They’re so calm around them.”

While at Otterbein University, near Columbus, Willham hopes to combine equestrian studies courses and business classes. The school offers a major in equine business management.

Whatever he decided to do, his mother said she will be supportive.

“Whatever he wants to do, we’re behind it,” she said.

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.