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It's more than a leap of faith

In a technical sense, equestrian competition generally is considered an individual sport.

But according to Mark Combs of Winewood Farm in Hudson, it's a team situation all the way.

"Your performance depends on the mood of the horse and its attitude on any given day," Combs explained. "It's a very mutual agreement. The horse has to have a lot of trust in its rider. And the rider has to be very familiar with the horse."

Combs, 22, recently was named leading young rider by the U.S. Combined Training Association, meaning that he was first among a nationwide group of 3,600 riders 21 and younger.

"I lucked out," Combs said. "This is a sport in which you have to be very humble, because every day is a different day."

No longer in the junior class, Combs is working on two career goals. First, he wants to make a business out of his riding and training. Second, he wants to succeed on the international level _ a dream that cannot be fulfilled until he earns a berth on the U.S. Olympic team.

Neither goal was on his mind when he first jumped on a horse eight years ago.

"I've been riding probably since I was 11 or 12," said Combs, whose father is a veterinarian who kept a farm when his son was growing up. "I wasn't allowed to ride when I was younger. It was one of those things where I wasn't allowed to do it. So, of course, I had to do it."

If Combs were merely an owner-rider, he'd concentrate his efforts on one or two horses. But since he's trying to make a business out of it, he currently trains and rides close to 20 horses for owners who have no interest in riding their horses in competition.

"The thrill of competition is very unique," Combs explained. "There's definitely an adrenaline rush going into it. That's because you never know what will happen when you're out there."

The sport is not without the potential for serious injury to both rider and animal. The object is to avoid the trial-and-error aspect as much as possible. And patience is the key.

"I broke my collarbone in 1991 and I guess that was my worst injury," Combs said. "It was just a mistake. I was a little eager to get over the fence. It was probably my fault. It was the kind of deal where it was the most valuable mistake I've learned _ knock on wood."

There are ways to minimize the risk.

"You have to train properly and do your homework," Combs explained. "There's definitely a risk factor every time out, but if you prepare, you're all right."

"You get the distances between jumps," he said. "Riders can walk the courses, but the horses won't see them until the actual competition. They'll let you warm up on smaller obstacles, but never the entire course until the competition."

Although Combs compares his business to that of a racing jockey, there is little similarity.

"I'm not only a rider, but also a trainer," he said. "When you're in competition, you definitely have to know what the horse is going to do in different situations. In horse racing, jockeys are only on for a minute and a half."

The major events in equestrian competition last three days and are broken into three phases.

Phase 1 calls for synchronized movements within a ring.

Phase 2 covers a cross country course with obstacles such as drops, ditches and water. The longest of the three phases, it is broken into four segments ending in a 10-minute marathon.

Phase 3 involves a short period of stadium work to determine how fit the horse is after the strenuous cross country workout from the day before.

The other form of competition is called horse trials; they last no more than one day.

A first-place finish in a horse trial in Virginia served as the cornerstone of Combs' bid for young rider of the year. He amassed 70 points in 12 events in his last year of junior competition, with 20 of those points coming from his victory in Virginia.

"I stayed pretty consistent throughout the year," Combs said. "There were two horses I was mainly concerned with _ my big guy, Soloman, which is 13, and another horse called Solforino, which is 12. I've ridden both since 1989."

Now that he is competing in the open division, Combs is coming up against veteran riders at least a decade older than himself.

"For what I have accomplished so far, I'm one of the younger riders around," Combs said. "The average age is between 30 and 40. But there's one person (Mike Plumb of Massachusetts) who has been to eight Olympics and he's 52 years old. He's definitely the master. He can jump on any horse and ride it. He's that good."

Combs hopes to compete in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, as well as in the 1995 Pan American Games in Argentina. Next year's World Championship in Holland also is a consideration.

"I'm looking for national competition, but I'm not quite there yet," he said. "I'm making my first steps. I'm kind of in the middle of the pack right now."

Combs, who will not compete again until the end of the summer, finds the quest for perfection to be his greatest driving force.

"My inspiration is the fact that I can go out and have a great weekend, but the following week it can be a total disaster," he said. "One thing may have worked one week and the next week it may not work at all. It all depends on the homework you do that week and how the horse will respond, because he has a decision in the process too."

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