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Maria Squires Salazar

Filed under: Current Articles,Editorial,Featured |     

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by Susan Winslow

World class runner and trainer Alberto Salazar casts a long shadow. Winner of the Boston and New York Marathons, he is an elite athlete who now coaches internationally acclaimed runners through Nike’s Oregon Project including Olympians Mo Farah and Galen Rupp who won gold and silver at the London Olympics. It could be a challenge to follow in the footsteps of a man with so many accomplishments on the world stage, but his daughter, twenty-two year-old Maria Salazar, has stepped out of that shadow to make a name for herself in the horse industry.

Early on, she found her niche in horses and competition, steadily rising through local, regional and world competition to the top of APHA, AQHA and NCEA (National Collegiate Equestrian Association) through a combination of hard work, dedication and the help of gifted trainers. This soft-spoken, articulate young lady, the daughter of Alberto and Molly Salazar, will graduate in 2013 from the University of Georgia where she has been a first string competitor on the UGA Bulldogs Equestrian Team since her freshman year.

As a member of the Bulldogs competing in Western Horsemanship, Maria has had an impressive four years, earning multiple MVP awards as well as First Team Academic All-American Honors, SEC Academic Honor Roll, the Sportsmanship Award, the Coaches Award and multiple Division Championship rides. In 2009-2010 she went undefeated in three rides at the Varsity National meet. As a Senior, while working toward her degree in Consumer Economics, this serious competitor earned All-American honors and helped lead the Bulldogs to the 2013 NCEA Reserve National Championship in Waco, Texas, on Saturday, April 20. The team took second to Auburn in a tense nail-biter of a ride-off.

Maria is candid about the loss to Auburn, saying, “It was kind of tough to lose that one because it was so close, but riding for the University of Georgia has been a great experience.” She describes the difference between her many years in APHA and AQHA competition and the team aspect of the NCEA, “In regular competition, you’re just riding for yourself, but on the team, we’re all in it together. Our coaches are all great, and Mary Meneely, the Western coach, has been incredible. College riding has helped me learn to slow down, stay calm and maintain the control necessary to be able to ride each pattern with a strategy. That is huge when you’re riding different horses in competition.”

Coach Meneely has high praise for her standout rider, saying, “Maria Salazar epitomizes what every coach looks for in a collegiate athlete! She maintains excellence both academically and athletically in addition to upholding her positive attitude. Maria has been a true blessing and contributor on The Georgia Equestrian Team and I am excited to see where her passion for life takes her next!!! Go Dawgs!”

Maria has thrived on the challenge of NCEA competition, saying, “It’s totally different from the way I prepare my own horse for a show. I’m a perfectionist, so I practice, practice, practice with him until I have the pattern down to where I’m satisfied. But in college competition, each host school provides the horses. Before each competition, the coaches do a random draw to determine individual match-ups and horses. Once the competition begins, you have four minutes to warm the horse up before you show. It definitely levels the playing field, and it makes you really have to be ready for anything. Riding on a school team is also a way for people who don’t own their own horses to have the opportunity to experience showing, but the best part of it has been sharing my love of horses with other riders who just get it, no matter what their competitive background is. I like riding on the team because we are really close, we support each other and we have a lot of fun. I will really miss being on the team, but I’m really looking forward to the exciting year coming up with my new horse after graduation.”

This summer, Maria will be returning full time to the AQHA show ring with trainer Shannon McCulloch. Maria is more comfortable talking about her team, trainers, parents and horses than her own accomplishments, but they are impressive. Riding with McCulloch on her new horse, Winkin For Chocolate, purchased in 2012, she won the 2012 AQHA Novice All-Around Amateur Championship. Riding her youth horse You Don’t Know Jacks in 2011 she won Novice Amateur Horsemanship Champion over 211 other riders at the Congress and Reserve Champion in Showmanship to win the Novice Amateur Hi-Point award. In 2010, she took both APHA and AQHA High Point at the Reichert Celebration and she won the 2009 APHA World Champion Novice Western Riding as well as consistent top fives and top tens since 2005.

Today, as an elite rider and World Champion, she still has the exuberance and love for the horses and the sport that she had when she was growing up as a horse-loving kid in Portland, Oregon. Her mother, Molly, enrolled her in lessons in a local barn with Desi Holt, who was active in local APHA competition. Maria recalls her early years fondly, “I had so much fun at Desi’s. It was the perfect place to start riding because it was a place where I could hang out with all the other horse crazy kids and we did fun stuff like trail riding and campouts. It was great.” When her parents realized that horses were more than just a hobby for Maria, they moved to McCulloch Training Stable in Forest Grove, Oregon and started to compete and train more seriously. Maria recalls, “There were definitely trade-offs in my life because I put every free minute into preparing for shows and showing, often racing off to a show then back to school. My youth horse was a great horse, but he challenged me in every aspect. I had a lot of help from Shannon, assistant trainer Patty Brumley, and Shannon’s sister, Erin McCulloch, and every win with him meant even more because I had to work so hard to get there. I’ve been so lucky to have ridden with very talented, supportive trainers. To compete as much as I do, you have to make those trade-offs in life, but it’s all worth it because I love it.”

Along the way, there have also been some unplanned deviations from the winning strategy, and Maria has a refreshing ability to see the humor in them years later. She giggles as she recalls one Showmanship class in Tulsa when she was fourteen, “Ugh….it was pretty bad. I was in an all pink outfit with a white hat – a total Barbie outfit. It was a big show; you had to show to one set of judges at one end of the arena, then show again at the other end to another set of judges. I was off to a great start when PJ clipped my heel, and I went flying through the air. I landed smack in the dirt and my pink outfit and white hat were filthy. I may have been a little dramatic in those days, so of course I started crying my eyes out. I wanted to just run out of the ring, but I limped my way over to the rail to wait for the next judges to get ready and who was standing there but Brian Isbell. I was absolutely terrified of him at that time, and he just looked at me, covered in dirt and tears and said, ‘Quit crying and go do the next pattern.’ So I went and bawled my way through the next pattern. Looking back, it’s just one of those situations where you have to laugh and move on…and maybe hire a therapist.”

Maria has come a long way since the Barbie doll faux pas and with her poised, confident manner, she is about to embark on an exciting year of competition with McCulloch Training Stables and Winkin For Chocolate, focusing on the all-around. She says, “I don’t want to take anything away from the specialized classes and the horses that are so amazing, but I love the all-around. I’m excited to jump, and I really enjoy the variety and the different challenges of the all-around. It makes training really fun. My philosophy on what makes a good competition horse is simple: I want a sweet-natured, willing horse that I can work with to go out each time for our personal best, and Winkin For Chocolate is all that. I definitely enjoy the ribbons, but it is more important for me to know that I put in my personal best in a class, and brought out the best in my horse.”

With her college years coming to a close, Maria is looking ahead to summer with excitement. Juggling classes, homework and horses has been a demanding balancing act, and she is looking forward to putting 100% of her time and boundless energy into competing aboard Winkin For Chocolate after graduation. She says, “I am so grateful to my parents. They are very supportive of my goals with this horse, and they are allowing me to focus on competing with him after graduation before I have to jump into the ‘real world.’ My parents and my two older brothers have been so supportive of me, and I can’t imagine ever going to a show without my mom there. I know it’s kind of corny to say she’s my best friend, but the truth is, she really is, and I couldn’t have done any of this without her. She has been to every single show with me since I started competing.”

Maria tried following in her father’s footsteps by running cross country in high school. “I hated it,” she says with a laugh, then adds, “And my dad knows that! I have so much respect for what he does, and I do enjoy running, actually. I’m just glad he understands that my passion is the horses.” These days, she runs for conditioning and fun, and she is very proud of her father’s accomplishments. She says, “He trains professional runners but, thankfully, he and his runners weren’t at the Boston Marathon this year. He has been an amazing help to me in developing the mental toughness you need to show at the top level, and it has been a great help to have his support.”

With her sights set on another World Championship, Maria says there’s not much time for anything else outside the horse world except for friends, playing with her nephews back in Oregon, and job hunting, but that suits her just fine. With her dedication to the sport, a talented horse and a solid support team, she’s well on her way to a great season.

For more information on McCulloch Training Stable, visit www.mccullochtrainingstable.com. For more information on the University of Georgia and the Bulldogs Equestrian Team, visit www.georgiadogs.com.

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