It didn't take long for North Marion senior Sydney Walker to make an impact at the first district equestrian meet of the season — 4.678 seconds to be exact.
That was the time Walker needed to take home first place in the steer daubing event at the Oregon High School Equestrian Team (OHSET) North Valley district equestrian meet in January, helping the Huskies finish fifth overall out of 10 teams.
"I only practice that at OHSET, so it's really a hit or miss," Walker said. "To go from not doing it all summer and then just to jump into it and get a first place, I was so excited."
Walker was one of three North Marion riders to place first in their events, joining senior teammates Michaela Chapin (saddleseat) and Alexis Knight (trail, driving). The trio form the core of the Huskies' equestrian program, which is one-third of the way through the season and looking to make a repeat trip to the state championship meet in May.
Walker's finish in steer daubing — an event where riders must chase down a calf and make contact with the end of painted pole — is a marked improvement over the times she put up as a junior in 2016. It puts her on the inside track toward qualifying as an individual this season.
Riders get two attempts at the calf, combining the times from each go to form their final score. Walker's attempts last year were a mixed bag. After missing the first meet of last season, she finished eighth and ninth, respectively, at her next two meets and missed out on a state qualifying berth.
This time around, she opened the competition with a solid start, scoring a time of 3.037 on her first go. It wasn't a great score, but in a small field with many new competitors, it was enough to put her in second place going into the second round. That's where she cranked out an incredible time of just 1.641 seconds to leap past Newberg's Katelyn Salzberg in the standings to claim the top spot overall.
"I didn't even think it was really that fast, but the guy who hands me the poles in steer daubing said, 'I blinked and you were done,'" Walker said.
Walker needs to finish in the top three in one of the next two meets to guarantee herself a trip to state, though she could still qualify with an at-large berth depending on how many points she finishes with at the end of the season. Last month's first-place finish puts her in good position to get there.
Overall, she finished in the top half of each of her four individual performances, taking 10th in showmanship, 14th in in-hand trail and 23rd barrels. Walker is one of several North Marion riders with aspirations to make it to state to join veteran teammate Alexis Knight, who qualified as an individual in each of the past two years.
Knight ranked as the team's top rider coming into the season and maintained that reputation after her first meet of competition this year. In addition to her first-place finishes in trail and driving, Knight also took top-10 finishes in western (7th), showmanship (7th) and in-hand trail (6th), placing her second out of 84 performance riders in individual scoring.
"I'm really happy with how I did this last meet," Knight said. "I haven't had as much time to work with my horses, but they have been good with being able to work with me on my crazy busy schedule as a senior."
Trail has been her signature event, placing fifth in state as a sophomore in 2015 and 18th as a junior last year. Her first-place finish in the event is her third consecutive district meet in a row placing on top, dating back to last year.
Joining Knight and Walker in the winner's circle was Chapin, who is competing at North Marion for her second year after moving to Oregon from Michigan prior to her junior season.
"I felt I was a lot more prepared this year in terms of how the show was going to run," Chapin said. "We've put a lot of work in the season, so it's really nice to see our hard work turning into something positive."
Chapin's first-place finish in saddleseat was her lone top-10 finish, but the senior did take 12th in showmanship and 14th in hunt seat, both events that featured a field of 40-plus riders.
"It's not even the placing," Chapin said. "Sometimes its knowing you tried your hardest and showed well."
This year's North Marion equestrian team is its biggest in years. Chapin, Walker and Knight form the core of a group of five seniors that includes Zoey Harris and Mikayla Biggs. Victoria Ledesma is the team's only junior competitor, while Rebecca Lettenmaier and Knight's younger sister Peyton give the Huskies a pair of freshmen into the program.
Ledesma earned a top-10 finish in barrels, placing seventh out of 57 riders, and Knight took a top-10 placement in showmanship, finishing ninth overall. Lettenmaier's best finish came in 15th place at in-hand trail, while Harris picked up a seventh-place finish in flags.
In the team events, the Huskies picked up top-10 finishes in working pairs (4th), in hand obstacle relay (4th), Canadian flag (4th), birangle (5th) and team penning (6th).
Overall, it was as positive a showing as North Marion could have predicted entering the first competition of the year and sets the Huskies up well for the second meet, scheduled for the first weekend in March at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem.