Some horse riders compete in dressage. Others ride cross country; others perform show jumping.
Sara Vitkus competes in all three.
Vitkus is an eventing rider, meaning she rides in all three disciplines and then all three scores are totaled for a final score. The lowest score wins. Unlike equestrian or racing, it requires riders be adept at multiple facets of riding.
Vitkus had one of her most successful outings earlier this fall, finishing first in the United States Eventing Association’s Area II Preliminary Championships. Area II refers to the region, which is composed of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and preliminary is the level of competition - the third highest level offered.
“It was the championship, so the atmosphere was pretty electric,” Vitkus said. “The show jump was last and I knew I had the lead going into it. It was mine to win and mine to lose. I hit two rails so I knew it’d be close.”
But Vitkus prevailed, earning a 40.20, nearly three points lower than the second place finisher.
A 17-year-old senior at Loudoun Valley and the Loudoun Academy of Science, Vitkus began riding 12 years ago under her mother’s tutelage. Her parents, Mark and Christine Vitkus, own Red Gate Farm in Hamilton, and Vitkus was able to grow up surrounded by horses. At age 9, Vitkus began competing locally.
But two years later, Vitkus found herself lacking the desire to compete and went on a long-term hiatus.
“I took a break because I got burnt out,” Vitkus said candidly. “I came back on my own terms. I’ve been really self-motivated since then.”
At age 14, Vitkus returned to competing, this time in eventing. Her growth was prolific, and she moved from beginner-novice up three levels to preliminary in the span of just one year. She boasts top three finishes in Maryland, Virginia, New York and Georgia, including eight top three preliminary finishes this year.
Vitkus does the brunt of her riding with Season O’ Reason, or Nike, but also enters training competitions with her other horse, Galactic. For Vitkus, competing is a collective effort between her and her horse and comes with time and patience.
“It’s very much a team sport,” Vitkus said. “The horse can’t do it by itself. You need to understand every part of the horse. You have to guide them and get them every possibility of success.”
Vitkus trains with Hannah Sue Burnett of Middleburg, a dominating eventing rider who took top honors at the Area II Championships in the Advanced division and competed with Team USA at the Pan-American games.
“I started working with Sara this spring,” Burnett said. “She has completely dedicated herself to the program have put her on and has had to put in a lot of hard work. I’ve been so impressed with her work ethic, but mostly I love her sportsmanlike attitude.”
Burnett’s program has been challenging and Vitkus finds herself training for a couple hours each day with the horses.
Though balancing several hours of homework, teaching at her parents’ farm and riding consume much of Vitkus’s time, she’s glad she’s returned to the sport.
“It’s a lot of long days and a lot of hours, but it’s what I like to do,” Vitkus said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
-All photos courtesy GRC Photography
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