3 Myths About Student-Run Equestrian Teams

The type of parent who makes the effort to hire an independent educational consultant (like myself) to guide their student through the college search and admission process tends to be a highly involved parent who hopes that his or her child will gain admission to not only a great college or university, but also hopes to give that child every advantage when it comes to advancing their riding career at the college level.  It’s a logical assumption and not an unreasonable goal for them to set; in addition, having help to narrow down the search field helps to save a lot of time and stress throughout the process for both parent and student.

Likewise, it’s also logical that this type of parent who is more likely to want their child steered toward a college equestrian program that is headed by a professional equestrian coach, someone who is a member of the college/university staff and is subject to the same rules and standards of all of the other athletic coaches.  This type of coach is usually affiliated with an equestrian program and team that is fully sanctioned by the college or university as opposed to a riding club that is completely student governed and run through a barn off campus (sometimes even way off campus!).

In summary, a varsity intercollegiate equestrian program with a staff coach and a formalized relationship with the college or university appears to have a superior sheen of respectability and reliability in its makeup – which is exactly the sort of structure that concerned parents want for their children when they send them out on their own for the first time.

Can you tell the varsity team by looking?  Here is a shot of the student-governed Penn State University equestrian team...
Can you tell the varsity team by looking? Here is a shot of the student-governed Penn State University equestrian team…

Yet while this restriction in the search for a college equestrian team is logical – particularly if you are a parent who will be paying a substantial amount of money to send your student to school – it’s worth asking if this mindset is too narrowly focused.

Are school-run programs better than student-run programs?

Lawyers and philosophers in the group may wish to debate the definition of “better” before responding to the above question, but at the end of the day, what really matters is that the students who choose to enter the intercollegiate equestrian ranks get opportunities to improve their riding skills, gain and perfect their leadership and team-building abilities, and have fun (lots of fun!) in the process.  (In fact, based on my experiences traveling with one particular IHSA team on Halloween a couple of years ago, I would argue that fun is the most important part.  But that’s another story for another blog.)

So if we’re using those three elements (riding improvement, leadership skills, and fun) as a measure to indicate the strength of a college’s program, then the following myths about student-run equestrian teams should be examined – and hopefully dispelled!

They are:

  • “Student-run programs are disorganized.”  I confess, I’m starting with an easy one here, because the majority of the student-run programs I’ve encountered in my experience have sometimes been better organized than their school-run counterparts.  The reason?  When students are empowered to take charge of something they are as passionate about as horses and riding, that’s often all the impetus they need to take the ball and run with it to make their club and team the best organization they can.  Tasks are divided into manageable chunks and nearly all of the students are given something to be responsible for on behalf of the team, be it organizing the carpools to the barn, engaging the team’s social media efforts, filling out paperwork, or keeping track of team finances.  What’s more, because the students normally only have this responsibility to contend with (in addition to their classes and other campus organizations they may participate in), but often don’t have the responsibility of caring for horses, teaching lessons, and all of the other administrative duties that normally fall on college-employed coaches and equine program directors, they’re able to give more of their time and energy into completing their tasks – with a greater success rate.  (And what looks better on a job resume than that sort of real-world experience?)
    • Want an example?  Check out the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Hoofer Riding Club web site.  Their IHSA teams are run through this student-led program and yet to look at their web sites (club and team), you’d think you’d discovered a professional equestrian organization.
  • “Student-run programs aren’t as competitive.”  Tell that to the Penn State University equestrian team after their trip to the 2012 IHSA National Championships!  Established in 1971, this club team is fully recognized by Penn State University – as a student organization, not a varsity team – and they have a tremendous competition record behind them.  In fact, when you visit their web site, you might even be tricked into thinking that they are a varsity sport, judging by the professional photography work, well-thought-out site layout, and long list of team accomplishments.  But dig a little further and you’ll discover that they are student run (within the structure of the university’s rules governing campus organizations), they train off-campus at a local stable, and yet they have still managed to put their school name on the list of IHSA National Championship qualifiers alongside college-run programs like Goucher College, Skidmore, Mount Holyoke, and 2012 national champions St. Lawrence University.

    ...and here's one of the Stanford University varsity team.  Do they look different somehow?
    …and here’s one of the Stanford University varsity team. Do they look different somehow?
  • “Student-run programs are entirely funded by the individual students – and their families.”  While it is true that many intercollegiate equestrian competitors have to foot at least a portion of their own training and travel costs in order to participate (lesson fees, transportation to and from the stable, transportation to and from shows, etc.), the amount that an individual student has to pay each year that they participate has very little to do with whether or not their team is student-governed and more to do with two factors:  the structure of their club team/organization in relation to their college/university and their knack for the art of fundraising.  In other words, many schools have funding available to help support student organizations in their endeavors – whether they qualify as a varsity team or not – and often the most active and engaged intercollegiate equestrian teams are able to take advantage of these funds, combine them with a few spaghetti dinners, car washes, or other similar fundraising efforts and essentially pay the team’s way (or at least most of it!) for the entire school year.
    • Yes, students may have to assist their own cause by paying for lessons and providing their own competition attire – but this organizational structure is not only found in student-run teams.  Indeed, many varsity teams have the same format and likewise raise funds for their home horse shows and other events because their varsity budget doesn’t stretch to cover everything that a team might need in a single academic year.  (In fact, Mount Holyoke is particularly famous for their annual “Rent a Rider” fundraiser.)

At the end of the day, then, I urge families (and parents especially) to examine all facets of their search for a great fitting college/university and a great-fitting equestrian situation.  Student-run equestrian programs have a lot to offer their members and shouldn’t be discounted just because they aren’t governed as closely by the school as a varsity program.  Indeed, sometimes the life lessons that students who participate in these programs can be more valuable than the ones learned within a varsity-structured organization.

And sometimes they have a lot more fun too!

(Want help in the search process?  Contact me today.)

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