A few weeks ago, I met with a friend who works as the athletic director for an NCAA Division III college. I jokingly refer to him as my “brother from another mother” because we’ve always had the uncanny ability to hit on the same idea at the same time and this particular conversation was no different – especially when talk turned to things equestrian-related.
The topic of our discussion this time around was the way that equestrian teams are viewed as part of varsity athletic programs when they aren’t at an NCAA Division I or II school (that is, not governed by the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA), which limits its scope to DI and DII schools only). At DIII colleges like those where my friend works, the sport of equestrian can still have a varsity designation if the administration allows it to be counted among the likes of basketball and lacrosse and swimming. These DIII varsity equestrian teams all compete within the structure and format of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) alongside club equestrian teams but are allowed similar privileges to all other varsity athletes on their home campuses (including paid travel expenses and entry fees, access to physical therapists, athletic trainers and tutors, and the receipt of a varsity letter for their participation).
Yet because equestrian is such a non-traditional sport with a great deal more required equipment (note – I refer to horses as equipment in this context) and some substantially different rules than the other sports that a college typically carries on its athletic roster, it still often gets the short shrift from the athletic department. (In the words of my friend, “Sometimes I spend so much time bogged down in the minutiae of managing the things that make the equestrian program different, we don’t even have time to talk about whether or not they’re actually good.”)
What does this mean for you if you’re a prospective intercollegiate equestrian who is weighing the prospect of attending a school with a varsity equestrian program through the NCEA, one through the IHSA, or a school with a club team?
Research, students and parents. It means research.
In particular, it means that you need to ask a lot of questions during your college search to make sure that the equestrian program you align yourself with at your chosen school is a fit athletically, financially, and culturally. For varsity IHSA programs, those questions should include:
- What items are covered by the school and what items are the responsibility of the student? (Blogger’s note – Typically varsity equestrian teams receive team sportswear – jackets, warm up pants, hats, etc. – but are responsible for their own show clothes, helmets, boots, spurs, etc.)
- What privileges do varsity athletes receive on this campus and are those available to equestrians? (Common examples: tutoring, athletic trainers, sports psychologists, adjusted exam schedules, etc.)
- Is there a regular team practice schedule or are student riding lessons scheduled around the riders’ class schedules? (Blogger’s note – At many schools, the answer is both.)
- What responsibilities do the equestrians have to the athletic department? (Blogger’s note: DIII athletic programs – as with all athletic programs – engage in annual fundraising drives to supplement the cost of hosting them on campus; raffles, car washes, etc. are common and all teams typically have fundraising goals to meet.)
- Do equestrian athletes on this campus receive varsity letters at the spring athletics banquet?
- In what other ways does the campus support its equestrian athletes?
Ask these questions of enough DIII varsity equestrian programs and you’ll begin to see not only several similarities, but also some stark differences in the way individual programs are governed by their home institution. But rather than look for a program that’s doing it “right” or a program that’s doing everything “wrong,” it’s more important to look for a program that will allow you to meet your equestrian goals while still completing your academic goals as well. Look for a program that will fulfill you, that will educate you, and that will support all of your dreams (in and out of the saddle) and you may just find the right fit you’ve been searching for!