NCAA Riding – Fact v. Fiction

This entry is courtesy of guest blogger and colleague Sloane Milstein of College Riding 101.  Milstein is a former NCAA and IHSA college coach and the author of The High School Equestrian’s Guide To College Riding

With over 400 colleges and universities offering competitive riding opportunities, there will be one that is right for you.  But before you make those campus visits, tour the stables, and meet the teams, it’s best to understand the governing organizations of college riding and what their emphasis is so you’ll know which programs will best fit your needs.

Today’s History Lesson:  While all college equestrian associations have competitive teams and opportunities to learn, each association was founded on a different set of principles and provide different types of experiences.  Understanding the mission of each association should help you determine if your goals match theirs.

The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) was founded on the principle of access and inclusion.  The IHSA offers eight levels of English and six levels of western riding, including options for alumni.  The IHSA encourages individuals with no prior riding experience to participate in equestrian sports while giving more seasoned riders affordable options to be competitive at college.  The university’s club or Student Affairs Department, (the same department you might find the French club or the debate club, etc.) houses most teams.  Lesson barns are secured for training and an instructor is hired to coach the team, sometimes through the university and others through lesson fees paid by team members.   The key concept is “participation.”

While the majority of IHSA teams work towards qualifying for post season championships, riders like Meagan Smith-Brehmer from Southeast Missouri State University are more community-oriented.  She says she likes the sense of family created from being on a team where upper level riders help the lower level riders both at the barn and at competitions.  Meagan, formerly a rodeo rider, is clearly hooked on the IHSA and all it has to offer!  As a beginner rider, Meagan is learning her foundation in hunt seat equitation through the IHSA program and is excited about the possibility of continuing her riding career as an alumni competitor well after she graduates.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was founded over 100 years ago, first to protect football players and now presides over 400,000 student-athletes in 23 sports with 89 championships.  “Protection” is the key word for this history lesson.  While many people associate the NCAA with big-time sports and might not agree that the NCAA protects anyone, I would argue that, when it comes to prospective student-athletes (those in high school), the NCAA has set forth rules that are meant to keep coaches from harassing or pressuring students while they sort through all of their options.  The NCAA is also responsible for setting the minimum academic standard needed to be eligible to become a college student-athlete.

When it comes to competition and championships formats, those rules are left to the National Equestrian College Association (NCEA, formerly Varsity Equestrian), which is collectively governed by the participating university coaches.  These programs are all are housed in the athletic department and generally have goals associated with providing competitive athletic experiences.  NCAA equestrian programs, (which contain both IHSA and NCEA teams), are founded on the premise of a different sort of access and inclusion.  These programs exist to create more opportunities for women as part of a gender equity initiative to increase competitive opportunities at the university level.   While NCAA teams like Cornell, Brown and Stone Hill College choose to participate in an IHSA format, teams such as Auburn, Texas A&M, and Kansas State participate in the NCEA format, but all are NCAA programs and must follow the rules and guidelines set for all athletes, regardless of sport.

Not as well known as the IHSA and NCEA programs is the American National Riding Commission (ANRC), an education-based program emphasizing balance between horse and rider.  Riders in ANRC programs not only compete, but can work towards certificate programs.  Different from IHSA and NCEA programs where riders randomly draw horses to compete on, ANRC riders train and ride horses from their own school.  While the competition is equitation based, the format resembles more of a three day event, with a flat testing phase, arena jumping, and field jumping phases, as well as a written test.  Currently, there are 50 plus schools that participate in ANRC competitions and championships, and many of these schools also have an equestrian facility on their campus and offer equine academic degrees.   With only a few ARNC competitions held each year, these schools often also participate in the IHSA, Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) or industry events.

Fact or Fiction: The NCAA is More Competitive than the IHSA and the ANRC Isn’t It?

Fiction!  As a former coach of both IHSA and NCEA athletes, I would attest to that if you take an open level hunt seat rider in either organization, not only can they hold their own, but they will also be competitive.   Abbie Britton, a Sacred Heart alumna, says, “The NCEA programs are most competitive because each competition you participate in, you have a different set of competitors and you compete for a team win or loss in a head-to-head competition.   IHSA formats allow you to get to know your competitors because you see the same schools each week and, as the season went on, you even became more familiar with the horses as well”.

Fact or Fiction: All NCAA Programs have Scholarships Don’t They?

Fiction!  Some NCAA schools offer scholarships and others do not.  Teams that are housed in the athletic department of Division I programs may offer up to 15 full scholarships a year, but they also may split them among the athletes or opt not to offer any scholarships at all.  Division II programs also have the option to offer scholarships but, because they are often intermediate level programs that try to find more of an academic balance for their student-athletes, they generally offer very few scholarships.  Division III programs may only offer academic scholarships; programs housed in the club departments may offer participation scholarships or grants.  (Currently, no DIII schools host NCEA equestrian teams.)

Fact or Fiction: Big Teams are the Most Competitive?

Fiction!  Mindy Velesco McCaulley,  a Kutztown alumna, recalls her small team of eight initially resembling the Bad News Bears when she joined.  A year later, with a new coach and team goals, the team rode its way to post-season competition.  During Mindy’s four years, the team grew to 20 riders, boasted two individual Cacchione Cup Riders, and participated in a Zone championship.    As with any equestrian program, the right mix of talent, coaching, access to horses, and team cohesiveness goes further then sheer numbers alone.  And while larger teams have more competitors and assistance with fundraising, they also can have more expenses.

Fact or Fiction: College Coaches are Rude… Aren’t They?

Fiction!  While it’s true that some are and some are not, people are people, but overall, coaches that are part of NCEA programs must follow specific recruiting rules of when and how they may communicate with riders.  Until prospects fully understand the rules, it is always a safe rule of thumb to send an email.  While coaches may not be allowed to call you back, they can always respond to your email requests.

An entirely different problem exists with IHSA and ANRC coaches.   Most IHSA coaches are instructors at a local barn and coaching an equestrian team is just one of their many responsibilities.  Unlike NCAA coaches, most do not receive a year-round salary and if you knew how much many of them are paid, you would be very surprised that they coach at all.  ANRC coaches can also be academic professors, often with nine or 10 month contracts.  So these coaches aren’t rude, but because of their schedules, they often don’t get messages from prospects during the off-season.  If you find yourself seeking information during the summer and have not heard back from the coach in a timely manner, use your social media to connect with current team members or alumni to get started and find out how and when is best to reach the coach.

Fact or Fiction: If I am not selected for a team during my freshman year, then my college riding career is over!

Fiction!  If you did not make the team on your first try and this is important to you, consider meeting with the coach to determine what specifically you should work on to prepare for the next tryout and find out if there is an opportunity to volunteer with the team.  Volunteering shows your true interest to participate and if someone drops off the team mid-semester, you will likely be called upon to take their spot.  Another option for those who are self-starters or who participate in a discipline that is not offered is to request to add a team or program.  There are some institutions that have a team sponsored by the athletic department and a club sponsored by the recreation department.  Other schools that have an existing hunt seat team might be interested if you want to add a western, dressage, saddle seat team, etc.

Fact or Fiction: If the school I’m interested in doesn’t have a riding team, then I will not get to ride in college!

Fiction!  First, consider what your goals are; academics must come first.  So it is understandable if, after you consider your criteria, you may pick a school that has a specific academic program or you might not want to take a chance on a tryout.  Consider that many schools will let you start a program; you can discuss this option with a campus advisor to find out what you need to do on the school’s end to start a team.  If you are going to have this conversation prior to attending the school, make sure to download the forms needed from the individual association and come prepared to ask questions.  Not only will this allow for the possibility of getting the team formed during your freshman year, but this will likely impress the counselor with your initiative and leadership.    The process will vary by discipline (and association), as well as by the school rules.

If none of the above options work out for you and you still have your heart set on riding at college, ask if the school’s riding facility gives lessons in the form of physical education classes or if they would suggest a local riding facility that might be able to accommodate you when you attend their school.

(Want more help understanding your college riding options?  Contact me or Sloane directly – we’re happy to help!)


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