Most girls go through a horse-loving phase at some point in their youth. For Burgin Lee, it was not a phase — it is a lifestyle.
Burgin trains six days a week at Hillmar Farm in Gainesville, and her hard work has paid off. The 13-year-old Gainesville girl is ranked in the top 30 in the nation in horse jumping.
Now Burgin is training for the Interscholastic Equestrian Association’s national competition where she will face 29 of the country’s best riders in 2-foot jumps. To punch her ticket to the nationals, Burgin placed third in the IEA Zone 4 Finals on March 22 in Perry. She is the youngest competitor from Hillmar Farm to make the cut.
“As soon as my trainer (Jill Zabiegala) and I heard the placing, she turned to me and said ‘You’re in boot camp now,’” Burgin said.
Burgin is enrolled in Georgia Cyber Academy, allowing her time to complete the intense training she needs to be successful in IEA. The competitive organization offers girls in grades 6 through 12 the opportunity to participate in equestrian events.
“You don’t have to have your own horse or lease a horse to participate,” said Burgin’s mother, Anneka Baldwin.
At the event, all riders will draw a horse’s name from a hat to compete in the jumping contest. The drawing ensures girls with more well-bred, higher-quality horses don’t have a competitive advantage over girls who cannot afford their own horse.
“It really helps the judges judge the rider and not the horse, and it puts the girls on a very even playing level,” Baldwin said. “You get about 30 seconds to be on the horse, so it’s supposed to make it very fair for everyone.”
While the goal is to level the field, it also presents unique challenges for the riders. Seeing how riders handle those obstacles assists the judges in critiquing the riders throughout the competition.
“There are a lot of variables that leave things to chance,” Burgin’s primary trainer Jack Flowers said. “You may get a horse that’s not as extensively trained as another, or one that is older or had an injury. No matter what, it’s not like working with your horse day in and day out.”
Although horses and riders are unfamiliar with each other, quality control standards are in place to ensure horses are at equal ability levels and fit to ride in competition.
“There is a rule that if you believe that a horse is unfit to be in the IEA, you shouldn’t bring it,” Burgin said. “Most horses are good, safe horses, but if a horse is acting up one day, they have replacement horses.”
For Burgin, who has been riding since she was 5 years old, confidence is key to connecting with different horses at each event. She said she is secure in her ability to ride, which differentiates her from other middle schoolers.
“She’s a good, confident rider and horses can sense that,” Baldwin said. “If a horse can tell you’re confident, it’s going to be very obedient to you.”
Burgin gained her confidence from competing in large shows in the greater Atlanta area. But despite her experience, training for the IEA National Finals is challenging.
“They are putting me on as many diverse horses at the farm as they can, so that I can get used to different things,” Burgin said. “We will work on some nitpicky things like not pushing my shoulders too far forward.”
Even though Burgin must improve before competing on a national stage, Flowers is confident in Burgin’s abilities because of her excitement and enthusiasm for the sport.
“She’s a very enthusiastic young rider with a lot of potential,” he said. “We’re going to put a lot more focus on form. Part of equitation is a person’s presence on the horse, and for more technical rides and riding different horses, you need to make sure posture and connection to the horse are finely tuned.”
The national competition is April 24-26 in Wellington, Fla. Burgin said she is nervous but excited to take on some of the best riders in the nation, especially ones who hail from towns where equestrian training and competitions are commonplace.
“I view Gainesville as a city, there’s not a lot of landscape or farms,” Burgin said. “In our zone, we have Aiken, S.C., and Wellington where it is more popular. Most girls (who) go to nationals from our zone are from those places.”
However, Flowers does his best to take pressure off of his riders before competitions. He said he helps them get in the correct frame of mind. The trainers always hope their riders do the best, but don’t set the bar at an unattainable level, Flowers said.
“I think it’s a lot of pressure on herself going into a competition like this and even going into this competition last week, but she just has to clear her mind and put her focus where it needs to be,” he said. “It’s a big deal because you have hundreds of kids in this area who are doing this and competing in this. To be one of the handful that has made it to nationals is already noteworthy.”