Unconventional sports, Clio Rao (12): Horseback riding


Josh Shuster, Staff Writer

“I was definitely a part of that ‘every little girl wants a pony’ group,” Clio Rao (12) said. “I was obsessed with horses, and I really wanted to try riding.” Rao’s childhood dream has become a reality — she is now a competitive horseback rider.

Rao began horseback riding after her mom suggested it as a pastime activity on weekends and during summers in upstate New York, she said. Rao quickly fell in love with the sport and pursued it at summer camps for several years, eventually making the decision to ride competitively in 2016. Now, Rao rides in Amenia, a town in Dutchess County, New York. 

Rao has been riding casually for 11 years, and competitively for six, she said. “I ride every week — Friday, Saturday, Sunday — and anytime I have days off or on vacation.” Rao competes most weeks in the summer but has less time to do it during the school year.

During her years riding, Rao has experienced various ups and downs, she said. “I really stuck with [riding] because I love the horses and the special bond that’s created through riding, but there were definitely times when it felt challenging.”

One especially frustrating moment in her career was when she searched for a new horse. Rao found a horse that was young, mobile, kind, and seemed perfect for her. Unfortunately, the horse did not pass a pre-veterinary exam since it had a medical condition called ‘shivers.’

At that time, Rao had already looked at over ten horses, so the experience was particularly frustrating, she said. “It was definitely really hard in the moment — getting my hopes up and then getting disappointed.” However, Rao did not quit in her goal of finding a steadfast steed, and eventually, with the help of her trainer, found two horses that she formed unbreakable bonds with.

Rao’s equine dream team currently consists of two Dutch Warmblood horses named Boss and Tessa. “Meeting [Boss] was the best part of my riding career because he has helped me so much, not just with my riding, but also with my patience,” Rao said. “He has been my best friend, my rock; he has been there for me.” Boss is 16 years old and white-ish gray with many small specks scattered over his hide.

When Rao first met Boss in 2021, she took training lessons in preparation for a division called the Junior Hunters. Hunters is one of the main competitive categories in horseback riding, with courses designed to imitate nature using wooden poles and logs for horses to navigate through. Horses have to know when to jump and how to jump: the hunters course is judged on how well the horse can jump.

Tessa came into Rao’s life about two months ago. “She looks like your stereotypical white, princess horse,” Rao said. In competitions, Tessa performs jumpers, which tests a horse’s speed. “I like it a lot more [than Hunters] because the judging isn’t subjective at all,” she said. A lot of judges have preferences for horses with certain colors and builds, but jumpers are solely judged on their performance.

Horses are incredibly high maintenance, especially at a performance level, Rao said. “Our horses are really spoiled. They are not really in stables for most of the time.” Instead, Rao’s horses live in large, grass fields by the barn. Rao and the grooms who work at the barn brush the horses every day and make feed for the horses with different health-improving supplements. They bathe the horses when they are sweaty, and frequently replace the horses’ water troughs. The horses also regularly visit a farrier, who replaces their horseshoes. Horses also need bonding time with their riders, Rao said. “[We give] them treats, cuddle with them, [and] have them know they’re loved because they can tell.” 

A fundamental skill in horseback riding is patience, Rao said. It takes a lot of patience to gain a new horse’s trust and get used to riding it. “Animals are animals, so you never really know what you’re going to be met with,” Rao said.

Along with patience, having thick skin is also important for riding in competitions. “The competitive world is very toxic, and there are people who are in it for the [wrong] reasons, and can be very manipulative,” Rao said. “Having your wits about you is definitely a quality I think you need to have.” Rao focuses on why she loves the sport — the horses.

One of the largest milestones in Rao’s riding career was winning second place in her favorite riding show, the Hanson Classic Horse Show. It was a huge confidence boost for Rao. “I had a really strong round, [putting] all the other things that I was preoccupied about behind me and getting back to why I loved riding so much,” she said. “[By] focusing on that, I was able to find a competitive shot again.”

From her competitions, Rao has won many awards and prizes: money (that she uses to pay for shows), souvenir cups, a saddle pad that goes under the horse’s saddle when riding, a blanket, and a big bag of peppermints for her horses. 

In the future, Rao hopes to continue riding. “It’s definitely up in the air right now because I’m a senior.” She never intended to apply for a Division I horse riding team, but she does want to ride throughout college, and afterwards too. “A lot of people take a break and come back later to [riding] in life,” Rao said. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to stay away from the horses for long.”