Musical Chairs

I’ve had several friends in the college equestrian world contact me over the last week or so to let me know that many college programs have either posted ads or will soon be posting ads looking for new equine program faculty, equestrian program directors, and/or equestrian team coaches.  That’s not an unusual event in the spring in the world of college equestrian – or the world of higher education, for that matter.  Because the school year runs from August or September until May or June, if transitions happen within programs and departments, they generally occur between the months of May and July.  It’s prime transition time for institutions and it’s not unusual at all for staff from one institution join the ranks of one of their competitors the next year.

I've trained with Maryal Barnett (standing center) since I was 12 and George Halkett (mounted right) has been my mentor for nearly 9 years. Long-term relationships in the horse world are common but don't let the presence (or absence!) of one person in a college equestrian program make or break your decision about a school.
I’ve trained with Maryal Barnett (standing center) since I was 12 and George Halkett (mounted right) has been my mentor for nearly 9 years. Long-term relationships in the horse world are common – but don’t let the presence (or absence!) of one person (a coach, a director, etc.) in a college equestrian program make or break your decision about a school.

What this means for you as a prospective student is that the people you meet during your senior year while making your campus visits may not necessarily be the same people who greet you when you arrive on your chosen campus in the fall.

Bear in mind, I’m not mentioning this annual game of “Higher Education Musical Chairs” in an effort to frighten you during the college search process; rather, I’m mentioning this transitional ballet in an effort to assist you in finding the right fit school – regardless of who’s running the program – because at the end of the day, that’s what you’re selecting:  a school.  That school is a stopover point in your life – a place where you will gain the skills and knowledge you need to succeed in whatever direction you choose to go – so the most important thing you can do as a high school senior is to choose the one that’s going to put you on the path you want to be on.

Now, I know from personal experience that, for riders, it’s incredibly important that you get along well with your instructors and that they share your same philosophy about equestrian sports and approach to riding.  After all, chances are good that you’ve spent several years at your home barn and with your current trainer; perhaps he or she has even been your sole instructor up until this point.  You may have a very close relationship where you see your trainer as an extension of your parents.  It’s natural, then, for you to seek another version of that relationship in college and look for a leader in your new school’s equestrian program with whom you can share the same close bond and who will help you take your riding to the next level.

The problem with selecting your school based on one inspirational person, however, is this fact:  One of the only ways in which college equestrian sports are just like traditional sports (football, soccer, etc.) is when it comes to coaching.  Every coach – regardless of sport – is faced with the task of getting a group of individuals to perform to the best of their abilities as a cohesive – and victorious! – unit.  In intercollegiate equestrian competition, that means that the coach must find the best riders to catch ride the horses at the next meet and earn points for their own team while other riders on the team place well in their classes to take points away from their rivals.  In particular, if the coach is a staff member of the school, then he or she isn’t reliant on lesson and boarding revenue for a paycheck the way that your home trainer may be, thus allowing for that coaching philosophy of “the best rider for the team at the time” to take center stage.

What does that mean for you as a potential team member?

Whereas your home trainer might be a person whom you see most days of the week when you go to the barn and you may also see him or her for private lessons, the college coach might be someone you only see once or twice a week at team practice and your team may ride together in a series of group lessons to best maximize everyone’s time.  In addition, some equestrian teams have a deep enough “bench” of members that one coach can’t train them all and several assistants are involved in the process of prepping the team for competitions.

Does this mean that you won’t have an opportunity to form a great relationship with your college equestrian coach?  Absolutely not!  He or she may still become a person who mentors you through your college riding career and many equestrian students even find jobs at the equestrian team’s off-campus stables, which allows them to spend more time with the horses and people there.  College equestrian teams may also compete in outside horse shows, different college formats (like the ANRC), or in other regional competitions that are separate from the IHSA or NCEA.  There may also be schooling or rated shows at the team barn or within the area for you to compete at under the tutelage of your college instructors.

But the strength of a particular college equestrian program – while it might seem dependent on a dynamic leader who is particularly charismatic in the recruiting process and for whom all of the “best” high school riders hope to ride – isn’t in one person whose name always appears in the pages of The Chronicle of the Horse, but rather the strength of a college equestrian program/team lies within the students who participate each year and the support granted to the program by the college or university itself.  Can a person with the wrong personality for a particular program come in and make the members of the team so miserable that people quit riding?  Sure.  But if a school has a long-standing tradition with their equestrian teams and is supportive, feedback from team members will quickly alert officials that a change needs to happen in order for the team to continue to succeed.  I’ve seen that sort of thing happen on countless occasions and seen immediate turnaround in programs where the right person was brought on board at the right time and the students were right back to their winning ways.

Even club teams have plenty of say in governing their own teams and coaching.  One year, the hunt seat team may train at the same local barn they’ve been at for the past five years and in the next year, a new trainer may move to town and connect with the team captain, who finds out that the new barn is a better fit for their riders so a change is made.

Sometimes it isn’t the students influencing the decision – sometimes a coach who has been with an institution for nearly a decade gets a very good offer to take his or her talents to another school whose program needs building up or whose coach has departed to run their own training business and departs, leaving space for a new coach to take over.  It happens often, with the coach of XYZ College pulling up stakes and showing up the next season at ABC University.

The one thing that doesn’t change as coaches move in time to unheard music is the school itself.  The school’s location, its academic programs, and the makeup of its student community are the consistent factors in the equation of your college education – so if you choose a school based on these things and trust that the riding part will work out the way it’s supposed to (even if that way isn’t the one that you pictured as a prospective student), then you’re in a for a great four years.

And if you want help finding that right-fit school, contact me.


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