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Local equestrian riders head to IEA nationals for a 'blind date'
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West Forsyth's Meaghan Bybee will compete in 'flat' competition at the Interscholastic Equestrian Association's national finals April 24-26. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

A girl and her horse. It’s a familiar tale. A bond is made between rider and animal. That bond evolves into chemistry. That chemistry leads to a story.

That’s not the story for West Forsyth equestrian club team members Jordan Payne and Meaghan Bybee.

Payne, 16, and Bybee, 15, are preparing to compete in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association’s national finals for ‘hunt seat’ style competitions, set to be held April 24-26 at the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. Payne will compete in the jumping category, while Bybee will participate in the ‘flat’ competition.

Only one thing is for certain: neither of the two has the slightest clue the name of the horses they’re riding.

That’s because the IEA provides horses for its sanctioned competitions. The non-profit organization debuted in 2002 with the goal of providing a competitive equestrian environment to riders who would otherwise not have the resources to enter private shows.

The IEA was a saving grace for hopeful riders like Payne.

“I was the kid this was made for,” she joked. “I couldn’t afford to do this without (the IEA).”

Payne loved horses for as long as she could remember, but never imagined having the opportunity to compete at any level. She remembers joking about riding for a major university with her mother, Kimberly, in her living room during an afternoon while she was in middle school.

“You can’t really get on a college team unless you go to nationals,” her mother said.

“I remember sitting there, thinking, ‘Who in the world goes to nationals?” Payne replied.

Now she’s on her way. Payne had to win first or second place in the regionals competition that granted her a seed in the IEA zones competition. The IEA is divided into 10 zones, with West Forsyth’s competitors being part of Zone 4, which includes teams in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi.

In the Zone 4 competition, held March 25, Payne scored seven points to come in first place for her class, earning a trip to nationals for the first time in her career in IEA, which began her freshman year of high school. Throughout those three years, she’s never bonded with a horse outside of the hours before and after competition.

“You have to pick a piece of paper out of a cup,” she said. “Basically, all of the riders kind of stand around and watch the horses beforehand and pick out their favorites, but it’s not up to you. They all have crazy names, and it’s always funny when you get on that horse that makes you look weird…you might be too tall, or too short for it.”

Bybee placed second in the Zone 4 competition in class eight. Bybee competes with the West Forsyth High School club team, with Payne, despite being a student at Cambridge High School in Milton. She began competing with West when Cambridge’s school system didn’t have a team. While Cambridge has a team now, Bybee didn’t want to leave. She’s built a bond with Payne while practicing at their home barn, Pleasant Hill, in north Milton.

“I couldn’t let go of the girls there. I thought it would be weird to give that up,” Bybee said.

Though uncertainty follows her to competitions. While she rides on a horse named Hailey at Pleasant Hill, she has to prepare for challenges at IEA competitions.

“When you have a horse and a connection with it, they understand everything you are asking of them, but when you get on an IEA horse it’s testing your experience and how your technique is,” Bybee said. “It’s not the horse doing the work, so it falls on you. That’s probably why it’s so valuable.”

Bybee has counted six different horses she’s competed on in her lifetime; Payne has lost track.

“I can’t keep count,” Payne said. “There are girls out there in show with $50,000 horses, and a lot of times you can compete with a horse trained by the best in the world.

“But IEA isn’t about that. It’s about skill. There are good horses and bad horses. It teaches you so much more than you would get on one horse because you experience every type of horse.”