Since the early October announcement by the NCAA that they have recommended the removal of equestrian from their roster of women’s athletics and the related announcement that Kansas State University will discontinue equestrian by 2016, the uproar from past, present, and future college equestrians has been significant. A petition has gone online to support the continuation of NCAA varsity equestrian, Texas A&M University have stated publicly that they have no plans to disband their equestrian team and programs, and organizations like the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA), the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) and American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) have all written statements of support.
As someone who works closely with college-bound equestrians to navigate the college search process, I’ve fielded a lot of questions about the issue and I’ve no doubt that I will face more questions in the months to come. For now, however, I will simply share my perspective because readers have asked:
First and foremost, I understand the decision of the NCAA.
The National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) was tasked with developing a group of 40 member schools within a ten year window in order to fulfill the requirements set forth for any emerging varsity sport by the NCAA. Because the NCEA did not accumulate the required number of schools (it currently hosts only 22) within the allotted time, the Committee on Women’s Athletics must therefore examine the possibility of removing the sport from its roster in order to remain compliant with NCAA guidelines.
Quite simply, the NCAA is following its own rules, and I think it’s important for them to do so.
Second, I can somewhat understand the reasons behind Kansas State’s decision to discontinue equestrian after 2016.
As both a horse owner and as someone who worked in a college equestrian program for nearly a decade, I know full well that equestrian sports aren’t inexpensive – primarily because our “equipment” is a living, breathing creature that is susceptible to illness, injury, and even death. Horses require regular maintenance, to be sure – but often they also require irregular maintenance in order to remain healthy and do their jobs. This maintenance comes with a cost.
Kansas State spends somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.2 million on their equestrian program annually, which undoubtedly includes not only feed, shoeing, and veterinary care for their school horses, but also coaches’ salaries, scholarships for riders, show entry fees, and travel expenses for the team. Moreover, college equestrian sports don’t recoup their costs the same way that programs like football can through ticket sales and merchandising, so when you look at a $1.2 million dollar budget for equestrian versus a sport like football, which brings in more revenue than any other college sport, math doesn’t favor the equestrians.
(For a specific example, the University of Texas netted $109 million in football revenue in 2013 and “only” spent $25,896,203 to run the program – in fact, their entire athletic department profited by $27 million after paying all of their expenses.)
The other economic factor that stands against equestrian has to do with sheer numbers of players on the field. In NCEA equestrian competition, riders face off in a head to head situation, which means that really only one “player” is on the field at any given time, whether she’s jumping her course or riding her reining pattern. In football, there are 11 men allowed on the field after the snap and in women’s soccer (which Kansas State plans to replace equestrian with after 2016), the number is the same.
Thus, the combination of simple economics and traditional utilitarianism (that is, the idea of being able to do the greatest good for the greatest number), makes non-equestrian sports look like a better prospect on paper.
But just because I understand how decisions are made doesn’t mean I agree with them.
I believe that the value of an intercollegiate equestrian experience cannot be measured in dollars and cents, nor should it be held up to the standards of an organization that has become more about dollars and cents in the last decade than ever before. (Remember in the spring when Northwestern players voted about unionization?)
Unfortunately, I will not have any say in the destiny of equestrian at the NCAA varsity level, nor, I fear, will many of the students, parents, and coaches who are currently involved in the debate. Instead, the final decree (whatever it may be) will come from those at a significantly higher pay grade – and yes, a group of people who likely have only passing knowledge of the intricacies of equestrian sport.
I’m not worried about the future of college equestrian sports on the whole, however. After all, the IHSA (the “grandaddy of them all”) was founded by one young man who refused to give up his passion for riding while he pursued his college degree – and then found a host of like-minded individuals to join him in forging a new opportunity for college equestrians everywhere. We horse people are like that – once we’re passionate about something (and usually it’s our horses and our sport!), we find a way to make it work. And with over 370 colleges and just over 8,300 students participating in the IHSA this year (which doesn’t include figures from other organizations like the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA), the Intercollegiate Eventing League (IEL), and several other sister groups), intercollegiate equestrian is far too big and widespread to perish. In fact, the explosive growth of the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) indicates that intercollegiate equestrian should be getting bigger in the future, not smaller.
Do I believe that the NCEA belongs among these other intercollegiate equestrian organizations and should be preserved?
Yes I do.
If, however, the NCAA cuts equestrian from its roster of emerging sports at its January 2015 meeting, I believe you will see the following:
- There will be less riding scholarships available to students who wish to pursue their sport at the college level. Notice that I said riding scholarships, not scholarships in general. I’ve been very vocal about the fact that the greatest number of scholarship dollars for any college-bound student are to be found through academic scholarships and not athletic ones. Because all sports come with risk of injury, the best bet to help pay your college costs is to find scholarships that will require you to exercise your brain – those tend to be easier to find and to keep over your college career and also tend to be far larger than their athletic counterparts.
- The burden of cost for college equestrian competitions will fall more upon the students themselves if colleges and universities discontinue varsity support. This point actually has two points to it because there is a tremendous misconception out there that the only way to be a varsity equestrian in college is to ride in the NCEA. This isn’t entirely true. Varsity athletic departments at individual colleges and universities can decide internally if they’d like to declare equestrian as one of their varsity sports – even at NCAA Division III schools where no athletes receive athletic scholarships. (In fact, many DIII schools have done this.) But even if varsity athletic departments of all divisions discontinue equestrian (which I believe unlikely, particularly at powerhouse schools), the majority of student club teams already support themselves financially and have built strong fundraising networks to make sure that they earn enough money for their activities each year. Whether it’s charging nominal dues or working off lesson and trainer fees at the home barn – or even organizing bake sales, car washes, and other traditional (and nontraditional!) events – college equestrians don’t have to own horses to compete in the majority of intercollegiate equestrian organizations, so their costs are far less than with regular rated and non-rated shows and the fundraising work they do helps to build not only their ownership in their equestrian careers, but also their resumes for their post-graduate years.
- The current college equestrian organizations will grow and other intercollegiate competition formats and competitions will be formed. If one avenue for collegiate equestrians closes, riders will find another way to pursue their goals in the saddle. For many, that will be to participate in IHSA, IDA, or even American National Riding Commission (ANRC). For others, that might mean working to help forge new types of competitions – perhaps building upon the existing Collegiate Equitation Challenge held as part of the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida each year or building intercollegiate challenges into existing AQHA or NRHA world shows. In fact, there are a myriad of possibilities that could be explored and college students are just the sort of creative people to come up with new and exciting ideas that could take the sport to a new level. (Talk about building an impressive resume – a student who founded their own intercollegiate equestrian organization would be a great hire for any company!)
Since I don’t possess a crystal ball, I don’t know what will become of the NCEA in the coming months, nor do I know how the universities who currently compete under their umbrella will address any changes that occur. This leaves me to stay tuned into press releases from various organizations and media outlets so that I can be aware of what decisions are made and how students will be affected moving forward. I trust that you interested readers will do the same, because it’s all that we really can do at this time.