Arizona was once the wild, wild West. Cowboys raced across the Arizona desert on their steeds, and horse-drawn carriages rattled through downtown’s Copper Square.
For one ASU student, that vision is a real piece of her life. Danielle Alder, 26, is one of the three students at the Downtown campus who ride and show with the ASU Western Equestrian Team.
Alder, born and raised in Mesa, Ariz., has been around horses her entire life. As a child, she looked up to her cousin and uncle who rode and showed their own horses. She began to ride and show at 9 years old.
“I’m pretty natural at it. I was never that amazing at sports, but when I got on the horse, I realized it was something that I was good at,” she said.
While Alder stopped riding and showing during her teenage years, she returned in her twenties. At the same time she began classes at Mesa Community College. She will be the first person in her immediate family to receive a bachelor’s degree.
“It was something I had to understand was important. Finally I said, ‘OK, this has to get done,’” she said. “I didn’t have the push, but I found the drive somehow.”
As Alder made the move to start her education, a new ASU sports team began. Started in 2008, the Western Equestrian Team is new to ASU, but also to the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. Since its creation, the team has scored in the top three at regional competitions.
For the 2012-2013 year, they went even further and unseated the 12-year reigning champion Cal-Poly to win regionals. The team went on to place eighth at semi-nationals, putting them in the top 25 of the nation.
It was during this year, the fall of 2011, that Alder joined the Western Equestrian Team. Finances were the initial big push for her. Alder was forced to sell her horse, Nash, because of the pressure school put on her time and money.
“Then when I came to ASU, there was this way of riding and showing for cheaper than … having your own horse and doing your own shows,” she said.
In the year and half since, she has become a leader both in her position on the team’s board and as one of their qualified riders.
Coach of the Western Equestrian Team Bob Leary, 57, could sum up his first impression of Alder in one word: timid.
“When she went on a horse, it was clear she was fighting fear,” he said.
Her anxiety emerged from a past experience of being repeatedly thrown off her horse.
“Coming into the team, I was a little weary of loping, that’s when something can go wrong,” Alder said. “I found myself asking, ‘Is it worth going out there and maybe getting hurt?’”
The challenge of controlling a 2,000-pound, highly intelligent animal can inspire fear in any rider, including Alder. But it’s this difficulty that also draws her to riding.
“It’s scary at the same time because they can do whatever they want to do, or they can trust you and let you ride them,” she said. “Knowing you can connect with them is interesting.”
When working with Alder, Leary said he focused on, “changing her mindset from being a passenger to a teacher.”
Alder is also one of the biggest supporters for her teammates.
“She’s one of the most generous, hard-working people I’ve ever met,” Rebecca Simpson said, an ASU junior and the team’s former president. “She makes everyone feel included. She creates a community vibe.”
“She’s good at being there if people get overly critical,” Leary said also.
Despite that, Alder remains insecure about her age.
“I’m the grandma,” Alder joked.
“She’s so not the grandma! She tells me this all the time,” Simpson said.
Alder is currently the vice president for the team, as well as one of its five regional qualified riders.
The team created the board after experiencing an influx of riders the year she joined.
“Danielle was one of those people who automatically was willing to help,” Simpson said.
Alder’s played a large role in getting the team out there, allowing them to volunteer with organizations such as the Arabian Horse Association of Arizona and barn tours.
“Seeing her engaging with horses and especially with other people is incredible,” Leary said.
Alder plans to keep horses in her future.
Due to graduate in December 2013, she’s studying nutrition. She was actually drawn to ASU because of its top program in this field.
One career Alder is considering working with collegiate athletes, shown by her internship position with ASU sports. She would also look into returning as an assistant coach for her team, or riding with IHSA as an alumnus.
However, she also has an interest and passion for equine-assisted therapy.
“I would really love to be involved in a program like that, or maybe even start my own,” she said. “When you see it, it’s hard not to believe in it or be near it.”
Her coach agrees. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see her with rehabilitation,” Leary said.
Despite joining relatively recently and her fears upon entering, Alder has become a committed and essential member of the team.
“I just wish she had joined as a freshman, so I could have worked with her for more years,” Leary said.
“She’s one of those people you just want to be around,” Simpson said. “Everyone loves her.”
Alder and the ASU Western Equestrian Team will be travelling to California on Feb. 16-17 for the UCSD Point and Regional Shows.
Editor’s note: This article initially ran as just a video piece, but it has been updated with a full article.
Correction: Feb. 12, 2013
This article originally reported that there are two Downtown students on the equestrian team, not three.