Marianna Mapes, senior

It’s only on rare occasion that Hope Cupples wakes up with legs that aren’t sore.

But for competitive equestriennes like Cupples, aching muscles come with the territory. The physical demands of horseback riding were among the many surprises awaiting her when she first got into the saddle at age six.

“I hated team sports when I was little,” said Cupples. “I always felt like I’d be competing within my team instead of with myself, so I started riding. But it turns out that horseback riding is definitely a team sport. You and your horse are the team. It’s like you’re the brain and the horse is the body.”

Cupples’ rigorous training schedule reflects her decade of experience in the saddle. She dedicates hours after school to grooming and riding her horse Juna and looking after younger riders’ horses.

“I need to go to the barn to feel balanced. It gives me something to get done,” said Cupples. “Otherwise, I lay back, I relax, I procrastinate.”

In addition to her regular training, she competes in five shows annually, which can take her as far away as Bend, Oregon.

She has won hundreds of ribbons from top performances with Juna, a Selle Français jumper that she has owned for five years. But with college and its accompanying tuition on the horizon, Cupples is in the process of trying to sell her.

“I love the sport and I love her,” she said. “But we’ve outgrown each other. I’ve learned all I can from her and now it’s time to part ways.”

The bond between horse and rider takes time to develop, she explained, and it’s a difficult one to break.

“A lot of people in this industry have a lot of money. When they sell their horse, it’s a business transaction. They don’t get connected,” she said. “But I do get that connection. It’s hard.”

Cupples’ equestrian life will undergo some dramatic changes when she heads off to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in the fall. For one thing, she chosen to study biology instead of participating in Cal Poly’s equine program.

“I didn’t want my academic life to be about horses,” she said. “College equestrian programs are good, but they have very little funding, and they aren’t yet recognized as varsity sports. I’ll get a job working at a nearby show barn, but I really want to pursue it outside of college.”

That means for now, Cupples is setting her sights on the next level up in the horseback-riding world.

“I want to progress. I definitely want to become a professional,” she said. “Long-term, it takes a toll on your body, but at competitions there’s a division for everyone at every age.”

She’s well aware that “professional athlete” doesn’t bring to mind visions of horseback riders.

“I spend my free time jumping enormous beasts over obstacles,” she joked. “But still, I wish I could make it clear to people that it is a sport. The classic quote is, ‘The horse does everything.’ It makes me so frustrated. It’s not a robot. It’s a living, breathing animal.”

But semantics aside, her 10 years on horseback has taught Cupples more than a few lessons for life beyond the saddle.

“You can’t take things so seriously,” she said. “I’m a perfectionist. But if something doesn’t go right, I’ve learned that it’s OK.”