Behind the Scenes

I wrote a blog entry earlier this month that touched on the best ways for incoming freshman and first-time intercollegiate equestrian members to set themselves up for success at their upcoming tryouts, but in the conversations I’ve had with both rising high school seniors and some of my former college students recently, as well as after reading this timely entry from Horse Collaborative, it’s occurred to me that there’s a topic related to the life of an intercollegiate equestrian I’ve entirely neglected until this point.

Being part of an intercollegiate equestrian team is hard work.

“But you already said that, Randi – you’ve written about balancing riding and academics.”

Yes I have, readers, but what I haven’t touched on is all of the other work intercollegiate equestrians put in on top of the hours they spend in the saddle. I’m talking about work work – the kind that goes into caring for top athletes (which school horses are), the kind that happens late at night and before the sun rises in the morning, the kind that leaves sore muscles where you didn’t even know you had muscles, and the kind that will ruin a pair of brand new jeans in no time flat.

I’m talking about the horsemanship side of being an intercollegiate equestrian.

These riders, whether they belong to a varsity team with a budget from the athletic department to support their competitive endeavors or whether they belong to a club that scrapes and fundraises for every dime that funds their existence, work hard. Perfecting equitation or switching horses to prepare for drawing anything (and everything) at the next meet is the fun part. Time spent in the barn between rides tacking horses, untacking them, making sure they’re as spotless when one leaves the barn as they were (or weren’t!) when the student arrived is the work. The caffeine-fueled early mornings on show day when the home team arrives well before the visitors to make sure that horses are clean, (sometimes) braided, and have all of the equipment they’ll need that day are always dotted with stalls that need mucking; water buckets to be emptied (and refilled); and a host of other tasks. Some horses need to be turned out and others brought in; fellow riders need help braiding their hair to tuck into hairnets; class entries must be organized; horses need to be warmed up, cooled down, and held between classes; jumps are put up with distances measured; rails go back up after they’re knocked down; judges must be taken care of; trash cans need to be emptied halfway through the day and again at the end; arenas are dragged; teammates are cheered on; and a good time should be had by all.

College equestrians aren’t just competitors, they’re also horsemen and women – and that’s a difference that clearly separates our sport from its intercollegiate brethren. (Think about it – when was the last time you saw a major football team cleaning their own stadium after the game?)

In fact, intercollegiate equestrian is one of the only sports I can think of where students are given such a high level of responsibility when it comes to running their own competitions. In the college equestrian program I was part of, even though the barn was college owned and operated, our students didn’t need to turn up on weekday mornings to feed horses and muck stalls when they needed to be in class. They weren’t required to do evening feed or turn in and turn out (because, again, class – and lab and research hours, etc.). But everyone who rode in the lesson program – team members, recreational riders, beginners, experts – everyone was required to tack up their own horses for lessons (pick feet, comb the mane, curry and brush the body, apply boots or wraps for jumping, pick shavings from the tail – preparedness that approached George Morris standards) and then had to completely cool out and care for their horse afterward. In the warm months, horses were hosed off and hand-grazed until they were mostly dry; in the cold months, they were cooled out in Irish knits, then curried again and re-blanketed. Tack was cleaned and put away properly and students’ possessions were stored neatly in their lockers for the next time. So for a thirty minute lesson, students could easily spend two hours at the barn because we were molding horsemen and women, not just riders.

And if anything proved the point more than show days, I can’t think of a better example. Show days were a marathon, not a sprint, readers.

Our students began organizing our winter team meets (one for each of our three teams) when they arrived on campus in late August – judges were booked, committees were formed, prize lists typed. As meets approached, team members were responsible for pulling manes, clipping bridle paths, sorting through show saddle pads to make sure they were clean, putting labels on any tack that had lost its tag since the last home show, and doing all of the paperwork that went along with sorting the class levels and groups of horses to be used. (The actual horse sorting and class assignments were done by the coaches.) Then on show day, students showed up early to feed and muck stalls because the barn crew’s regular hours didn’t begin until 7:00 a.m. They warmed up horses (including lunging one particularly cold-backed school horse who would buck everyone off if the temperature dipped below 50), welcomed visiting teams, and set jump courses for the morning classes (under their coach’s direction). Students who weren’t riding that day (usually members of the other two teams) served as horse holders and grooms, event announcers, draw table officials, runners, jump crew, and every other job that was needed to make the day run smoothly.

Our students weren’t unusual by intercollegiate standards either. Intercollegiate equestrians have ownership of their teams and though the levels might vary from school to school and program to program, it’s still one of the characteristics that sets the sport apart – so if you’re one of the many newly-minted college students who will have the good fortune of being selected for your college equestrian team here in the next few weeks, I hope you packed some work boots and enough of your favorite caffeinated beverage – you’re going to need it! Moreover, enjoy the time with your teammates, enjoy the ride (literally and figuratively), and learn all you can. You can sleep when you graduate.

(Need help finding the right school and equestrian team for your college years? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book today!)

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