Monday, January 22, 2018
Sports

Meet teen equestrian Alexa Fritsch, horse whisperer

LITHIA — Alexa Fritsch is a 16-year-old equestrian champion who has always been dear in the heart of Julie Castonguay-Iglesias, an equestrian teacher for the past 20 years.

A few significant moments come to mind.

The first moment was simply the first time they saw each other, which often is a telling moment when it comes to little girls walking up for the first time to Sleepy Oaks Farm, which Castonguay-Iglesias owns and is where she teaches.

The little girls hop out of their parents' cars and the scene is reflected in their eyes.

Some see glittering splashes of sunlight and butterflies and girls on majestic beasts leaping majestically over fences. These girls breathe deep and the air smells alive and full of possibility. These girls feel a rhythm in the moment with their hearts.

Others, however, see flies and horse dung and dust, and girls holding on for dear life atop gigantic, lumbering, wild beasts pounding around a steaming hot corral. These girls don't tend to hang around.

On her first day at Sleepy Oaks, about eight years ago, Fritsch saw the majesty.

And Castonguay-Iglesias saw it in Fritsch.

"Alexa had the stars in her eyes," Castonguay-Iglesias said. "She loved it so much."

Which brought Castonguay-Iglesias to another significant moment, coming shortly after Fritsch started taking lessons.

Fritsch was 8 and the horse she rode was spooked, ran wild and rammed into a fence.

Fritsch's tiny body was thrown and crashed into the railing and fell in the dirt, her face scraped and bleeding.

The scene almost broke the spirit of Castonguay-Iglesias.

"It was so frightening to watch, and it shook me up so badly that I went to my husband that night and said I was wasn't sure I could keep doing this," Castonguay-Iglesias said.

Which brings along the next significant moment, the moment where Fritsch and her family returned a few weeks later to Sleepy Oaks, determined to keep riding — largely because of Fritsch's love for the horses and the sport.

"It did scare me, but I learned how it's all part of it," Fritsch said. "It wasn't long before the fear left me and I was comfortable again."

The same of which was true for Castonguay-Iglesias, thanks also in large part to Fritsch.

And now, this weekend, comes another significant moment, when Fritsch, a junior at Valrico's Foundation Christian Academy, will compete in the National Interscholastic Equestrian Association championships in Virginia.

It is a moment that follows not only years of training, but a long road of recent qualifying competitions around the Southeastern states where Fritsch defeated hundreds of other riders.

It is a competition that requires a feel for many different types of horses, because in this competition, the horse, who is completely unknown to the rider, is presented to the rider moments before the competition begins.

It turns out Fritsch is particularly good at this adaptation, involving a series of calls from a judge to walk, trot and cantor without really knowing what commands work best for the horse.

"You have to figure it out very quickly, in the moment," Castonguay-Iglesias said. "Alexa has a very good feel for it. She has a calmness about her."

She also is gifted with balance and strength and smarts, which makes sense because her mom, Kerri, and father, Ralph, were athletes in their own right. Kerri, in fact, played tennis for Providence College and Ralph was a high school basketball player.

But horses?

"No, I was never really into horses," she said. "I don't know exactly where (Alexa) got the passion for the horses, but she's always had it. Instead of dolls it was horses, and when she saw a pony for the first time that was it."

Now Fritsch rides three to four times a week and takes care of horses the rest of the days. When she isn't riding, she's working out, trying to get a little stronger to get a little better.

Ultimately, the goal is to ride for a team in college, and then, of course, to have a barn of her own with a horse or two to ride.

"I can definitely see horses in my life," she said. "Most definitely."

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