By Nick Giannandrea
Cheyenne O'Dell learned her love of horses and riding from her late father.
The College of the Sequoias sophomore will carry Louie O'Dell's memory, and the Giants' best hopes for postseason advancement, into the ring this weekend during a trio of equestrian events in Tulare.
Cheyenne O'Dell sits second in points among nine riders in the Class 15/16 Open Horsemanship division heading into the COS/Reedley College Western Horse Show, scheduled to start at 11 a.m. Saturday at COS' Tulare campus, 4999 E. Bardsley Ave.
O'Dell needs a top two finish to move on to the Zone 8 Region 1 Regional Championships on Sunday in the same venue, starting at 9 a.m. A top two placing there would send O'Dell to the national semifinals March 15-17 in Ocala, Fla. O'Dell also is entered in Sunday's California College Championships, which is a showcase for the top riders across the state starting at noon. Admission is free to all three events.
O'Dell got her start on horses when she was literally still in diapers, riding with her dad while forging a tight bond over something they both loved.
"My mom tells me I was born on a horse," O'Dell said. She tells me dad would put me on the saddle and walk the horse around while he was doing whatever he was doing. When he would take me off, I'd start crying until I was back in the saddle. It's definitely a way of life, not just a hobby."
Despite growing up on horses, the fact O'Dell got into - and stuck with - collegiate equestrian competition took an unpredictable set of circumstances that unfolded after she graduated from Golden West High in 2013.
O'Dell's initial foray into college athletics led her to Moses Lake, Wash., where she played a season of softball at Big Bend Community College. O'Dell planned to pursue a major in criminal justice with a desire to become either a game warden or a police officer in a K-9 unit.
But a week before the start of O'Dell's sophomore season, her younger brother, Brock, was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) after getting hit in the head with a pitch while playing baseball at Valley Oak Middle School.
An AVM is an abnormal cluster of blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain or spine that affects less than one percent of the population.
Brock had to undergo brain surgery to remove the cluster, which had grown to the size of a plum, and that prompted O'Dell to come home.
She never returned to Big Bend.
"The surgery went well, but I didn't have the motivation to go back because I'm a very family oriented person," O'Dell said. "I wanted to be here for my brother."
So O'Dell transferred to COS and enrolled in the Animal Science program, where she would make friends with people on the Giants' equestrian team and get acquainted with coach Kim Pitigliano and assistant Michaela Trimble. O'Dell eventually decided to join the team.
"I figured it was just riding horses, so I can do it," O'Dell said. "But I got a wake up call. It's a lot different than what I'm used to on the ranch."
Quite different, indeed.
The Horsemanship event in collegiate equestrian is designed to evaluate the rider's ability to execute a predetermined set of maneuvers with precision and smoothness in complete unison with the horse while maintaining a balanced, functional and fundamentally correct body position.
"With the ranch, it's a lot more maintenance and the training involved with the horses," O'Dell said. "With the team, it's a lot more of a proper style of riding. I'm just used to cowgirling it, get on and get the job done. I never cared what I looked like on the saddle, but now I do."
O'Dell placed sixth in the Open rider division of her region during her first season of collegiate equestrian
She was looking to build off that heading into this school year when tragedy struck.
On Sept. 28, 2018, one day before a planned squad-bonding retreat for the COS equestrian team, O'Dell's father, Louie, died unexpectedly of heart attack. Louie O'Dell, a life-long cowboy and devoted family man who had worked as a diesel mechanic, was 46.
In shock and mourning, Cheyenne O'Dell didn't want to go on the retreat until getting talked into it by her mother, Belen O'Dell, and her friend and COS equestrian assistant coach Michaela Trimble.
And it was there that O'Dell decided to dedicate her season to her father, who had dedicated so much of his life to helping his daughter pursue her dreams.
"Win or lose, I was going to do everything he taught me and go out and do my absolute best for him," O'Dell said. "So winning this weekend would be amazing."
Words of advice from her father will ring in O'Dell ears when she climbs aboard a randomly selected horse this weekend for competition.
"Every time I would get nervous, he would always say 'don't worry about it. You know what you're doing. Go out and do your best,'" O'Dell said. "And that sticks with me because my dad believed in me more than I believe in myself, so I keep that with me."
In addition to O'Dell, COS will have 10 other first-year competitors in action this weekend, including Megan Frassetto (Richmond) in Class 13 novice; Emily Smith (El Diamante) in Class 12B Intermediate; Angela Patterson (Crescent Valley) and Katelyn Carter (El Diamante) in Class 12A Intermediate; and Heather Williams (Granite Hills), Diana Macias (Tulare Union), Sarah Gonzales (Strathmore), Danora Doe (Hanford) and Brooklyn Dieter (VTec) in Class 11 Beginner.
Frassetto will join O'Dell in the first California College Championship show, which will award its class winners with a special belt buckle.
COS gelding Sid has been nominated for regional Horse of the Year honors, which is expected to be announced this weekend, according to Giants equestrian coach Pitigliano. COS has had the past three Horses of the Year, starting with Bu in 2016, Vegas in 2017 and Roanie in 2018.