Prestige vs. Practicality

Nearly every day, I speak with a student or the parent of a student who is adamant that they want to acquire the “prestige” of being a member of a varsity equestrian team.  It’s an understandable desire – particularly because equestrian isn’t a traditional sport in high school and many riders don’t get an opportunity to join a team environment until they move on to the college level.  And yet, many of these families haven’t thought through what it actually means to be on a varsity equestrian team – or if a varsity team is even really the best fit for that particular student.

Before I proceed, please bear in mind that the goal of this blog entry is not to disparage varsity equestrian teams or the riders on them; instead, it’s an attempt to blow away some of the mystery that surrounds them and give you a realistic picture of the advantages and disadvantages that go hand-in-hand with joining the team so that you can determine for yourself what the best option for your college riding career will be.

So here goes:

For the sake of this blog entry, a varsity team is defined as one that is fully supported through either the school’s athletic or equine department.  Students normally have to try out (or are recruited) for these teams and the costs of their showing, memberships, transportation, and sometimes even attire, are covered by a team budget.  Depending on the program, students may have to pay for their own riding lessons or may also have those covered by the team/program budget.

Here, a club team is defined as one that is run as a student organization by students on a particular college or university campus.  As a club, they have a faculty or staff advisor (who may or may not be a horse person) and normally ride at a private barn (or barns) off campus with a local professional.  Clubs may receive some financing through a school activities budget but usually either fundraise for the rest of their expenses or the membership is expected to pay their own way.

Now that we’ve established that, allow me to quickly outline the way that a varsity team is structurally different from a club team:

The riders from Baylor University accept their trophy at the 2012 NCEA National Championship. (photo courtesy of Baylor Bears)

The average size of a varsity team is 40 to 50 riders.  (Recent NCEA national champion team Baylor University carries 50 members on their varsity team, for example.)  There are only an average of eight divisions where riders can score points in IHSA horse shows and five divisions for points in an NCEA horse show.  That means that a varsity team really only needs five to 16 riders in order to have one points rider and one back up rider per division.

The average size of a club team is three to 50 riders.  (The large variation in team size is due to the fact that club teams usually have no recruitment structure for riders out of high school.)  Some of these riders may have designated themselves as non-competing or social members, which means that they don’t go to horse shows with the team.  And while a three rider team has little chance of making it into the post-season as a team, those riders can show at every show and have an opportunity to earn individual points toward IHSA Regionals, Zones, Semi-Finals, and Nationals.  On a 50 rider team, the structure may be something like a varsity team, depending on the spread of the ability levels of the riders who make up the team.

Now, as a prospective intercollegiate equestrian, the question that I encourage you to ask yourself (and that I encourage  my students to ask!) is to weigh your desire for the prestige of being on a varsity team (and being able to tell your family and friends that you’re on a varsity team!) against your desire just to get out there and RIDE in college.  As an example, I’ll use Baylor University’s champion team as an example once more:

Baylor’s varsity team consists of 50 riders.  At the NCEA championship this year, exactly five of those riders participated in earning the victory.  That means that Baylor only utilized ten percent of their team at the most crucial moment of their competition season – and that if you were one of the lucky ten percent, you would have had an amazing (and pressure-filled!) experience.

But what of the 45 riders who stayed at home on the bench?

For many of them, perhaps just practicing with the team and having the financial support of the school behind them is exactly what they were looking for in their intercollegiate riding experience.  The possibility of getting to compete frequently is enough and they don’t need a guarantee of being able to show at every meet.  In other words, they’re very comfortable with being just a member of a prestigious team; the actual amount of riding and competition time isn’t foremost on their list of import items.

Photos like this one can make the prestige of riding on a varsity team very appealing to prospective students.

But what if getting as much riding time in as possible during your college riding career is crucial for you?  If you commit yourself to a team, you want every opportunity that you can find to ride different horses and compete and represent your school.  In that case, you might find that the prestige of being a part of a varsity team isn’t for you and instead a club team is more in line with your goals.  Sure it might cost you a little more out of pocket (though IHSA competitions are notoriously less expensive than their traditional counterparts), but if you have the desire to get in and get your hands dirty, it might well be worth it to you in the end for the experiences you have.

(And if you need help deciding what type of team will suit you, contact me and I’m happy to help!)

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