Schools and School Horses

"The Schooled Horse" - I snapped this picture at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. School horses are the unsung heroes of collegiate equestrian programs.

I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about the unsung heroes of the intercollegiate equestrian world – the school horse – and I think there’s one very important point every prospective collegiate equestrian should know:

You can learn nearly everything you need to know about a college’s riding program by meeting it’s school horses.

As I’ve said in previous blog entries, every college equestrian program is different.  Some programs are run similar to private barns, with school horses that specialize in a specific discipline and supplement the work that riders do with their own private horses.  Others are run as part of an existing equine science and/or equine studies academic program, which means that the horses are not only used for riding, but are also research subjects.  Some colleges have equine reproduction programs where the broodmares are used in the riding program in the fall before foaling in the spring.

When you visit college equestrian facilities and meet the staff, then, be sure to also make a point to ask questions about the school horses – even if you plan to take your own horse to college with you.  (After all, if you’re on an intercollegiate team, you’ll end up doing a lot of catch riding in competition and there’s also no telling when your own horse might become injured and you might need to take lessons on a school horse while he or she recovers.)  The information you receive can help to give you a complete picture of what your riding opportunities might be like as a collegiate equestrian athlete.

Want examples of what you should ask and what the answers might tell you?  Here are three:

1)  Ask if the program has a predominate breed or type of horse that it uses for riding lessons.  If the answer is a lot of Thoroughbreds and warmbloods and you’re someone who rides western, the program might not be the best fit for you unless you’re hoping to try new disciplines in college.  Likewise, if the response is all one breed (e.g. Quarter horses), you might discover that the riding horses are part of a breeding and/or training part of the academic courses – both of which will be factors in how the riding program functions on a daily basis.

2)  Ask about the competitive backgrounds of the horses in the program.  Were several of the horses hunters on the “A” circuit?  Is the barn populated with upper level dressage schoolmasters?  Are there former eventers or horses who were at the All American Quarter Horse Congress?  The quality of a program’s school horses can be indicative of their success in the show ring, both in intercollegiate competition and in outside competitions (if students are allowed to lease school horses for outside shows) – though one should be cautious not to be too judgmental in examining the horse’s histories, as a school’s location can somewhat play a role in the type of donated horses they receive.  (Schools in New England, for example, tend to have easy access to a lot of hunters, whereas schools in the Midwest are often found to have more off-the-track Thoroughbreds and dressage horses.)

Still, if you’re hoping to compete in any type of competition (intercollegiate or otherwise) as a college equestrian, knowing what options you’ll have with a particular school can be particularly helpful in helping you make your decision.

3)  Ask what type of veterinary treatment the horses receive.  Does the school perform only the basic necessities of veterinary care on its horses (e.g. shots, worming, teeth floating, etc.) or do they treat them as athletes, utilizing chiropractors and other types of injury treatment as necessary?

I tell students to ask this question not so much as a way to learn about the individual horses in the program, but more as a way to find out about the type of institutional support and funding that the equestrian program receives from the college or university.  Most college equestrian directors absolutely want to do the right thing by the school horses in their barns (who are, quite literally, work horses and must earn their keep) and treat lamenesses and other issues the moment they arise – but if the institutional budget for the equestrian program won’t support such decisions financially, the director’s hands may be tied.  So more than a way to assess the health of the school horses in a particular college program, asking questions about veterinary care is a way to find out about the health of the program itself.

So as you plan your college (and equestrian program visits) for spring, begin to prepare your lists of questions now.  Figure out what you’d like to know about a particular school’s academic programs, about student life, and about your opportunities for financial aid – and then head to the equestrian center and meet the school horses.  They’ll tell you everything you need to know.

(Want help planning visits?  Contact me – I’m happy to help!)

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