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Horses Play Large Role in Life of Eastern Florida Volleyball Player Sara Watkins

Oct. 9, 2013 - Sara Watkins knows — and loves — horses.

The Eastern Florida State College sophomore volleyball player from Chuluota, FL has one to call her own and holds a job where she is responsible for 14, one of which recently competed in a Hunter Under Saddle world championship event.

Watkins is in her sixth year of working at Willow Wisp Acres next to her family's home and has done everything from mucking stalls, fixing and painting fences, ministering to ill or injured horses and training riders and horses.

"Anything that has to do with a horse I've done it," she said.

And some of it can be challenging.

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"I deal a lot with troublemaker horses," Watkins said. "You just get used to being patient and working it out and you really learn what it means to take one step forward and five steps backwards.

"Our saying is we don't whisper things to horses, we let them speak to us, so you understand the horse."

Naturally she has a special bond with her 12-year-old sorrel quarter horse named Dew Dreams Impress and nicknamed Vista — after the street where the family resides — whose birth she witnessed. Vista is currently under lease to another rider while Watkins is attending Eastern Florida but they will be re-united after graduation.

Watkins is pursuing a major in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation with the goal of becoming a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer and after graduating from Eastern Florida will decide whether to enter the FWC academy or continue her education at the University of Florida.

"As long as I'm outdoors I'm happy," she said.

Then how does she explain her being a scholarship athlete in volleyball, an indoor sport?

"I don't know," she said smiling. "I really don't know. I played soccer and one day (in fourth grade) I was leasing a horse before I bought mine and they were big into volleyball, her parents were. And so I was just like 'maybe I'll try it.' I tried it and haven't stopped playing since.

"Horses have been a huge help to volleyball because riding helps to build my legs, and my core, and it's great to help keep me in shape during my offseason."

There is no offseason for horses and Watkins is always ready to ride or assist, carrying a saddle in her car. It is not uncommon for her to receive calls from people needing help with an uncooperative horse or perhaps an inexperienced rider. She responds when she can, with volleyball and classwork taking precedence.

She also shares her love for horses with teammate, classmate and roommate Alana Nielander and classmate and teammate Taylor Gembecki, who also ride.

Sara Watkins

"People come by my apartment and they say 'Oh, you're that horse girl,' " Watkins said. "I always have to defend myself, 'No, I'm not obsessed with horses, it's practical. They're pictures of my horses.' "

After all, it's a love affair, especially the riding.

"It's great," she said. "The horse can run me into a fence, flip over on top of me, but I still love it. It's just what I do. I've been doing it my whole life."

So, what is the key to not only the 5-foot, 4-inch Watkins but any rider being comfortable and in command a top a horse?

"Balance is the first thing you learn," she said. "The second lesson I took was bareback, which is without a saddle, that is how you should learn because if you don't have balance you can't ride a horse.

"You just learn how to move. Your hands have to be doing something, your feet are always doing something, your seat is always doing something. You just learn to do that by instinct instead of having to think about it. It takes a lot of practice."

And, establishing a relationship.

"Be one with your horse," Watkins said, adding with a smile that she has a love-hate relationship with Vista.

"She hates me when I'm working her, I work her way harder than the girl who has her now. She's like 'mom, get off me, quit riding me, I don't like this.'

"But then when she sees me she's like 'oh, someone who actually makes me work hard.' She appreciates it and hates it at the same time."

Much more work remains since Watkins plans to take Vista back into competition once she graduates.

After all, she knows — and loves — horses.