What If

I don’t know if it’s the heat wave that’s gripped us here in the Midwest and has also made its way to New England over the last week and a half (91 degrees at the end of September is not cool, Mother Nature – our horses are already working on winter coats!), but there’s been something in the air lately and I don’t know whether to attribute it to simply the time of year or the crazy weather. Both maybe?

As fall is the time of year when both college equestrian team rosters are assembled and high school seniors begin working on applications so they can go through the tryout process themselves next year, it’s no understatement to say that tensions run a bit high for a lot of people right now. And while it’s to be expected, I also think that high school seniors (and even some early-to-the-game juniors) tend to put a lot of undue pressure on themselves to make the team at a particular college or university before they’ve ever clicked “submit” on their application for admission.

…which brings me to the following question, students – one that I (as the self-confessed Queen of the Backup Plan for the Backup Plan) ask a lot of students every year:

What happens if you enroll in a college and then don’t make the equestrian team?

No. Seriously. I’m asking you to take a moment (or two) and really think about the answer to the question. What really happens to you?

Do the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse beat down your dorm room door? Do you become an instant social media pariah? Do your Olympic goals derail in an instant, never to be seen or heard from again?

Please know, readers, that it’s not my intention to be sarcastic or flippant here. I sincerely understand the pain and frustration felt by any student who enrolled at his or her dream school with big goals and found out just two or three weeks into the semester that those big goals aren’t going to come to fruition this semester or year. It’s a gut check – and it most certainly starts your college career out on the wrong foot.

But we aren’t talking about curing cancer here – we’re talking about riding horses with our friends and hopefully winning some ribbons while doing it.

Again – I’m not trying to be glib or treat someone’s disappointment like it’s no big deal. My goal instead is simply to provide some perspective on the situation – and to provide some action plan suggestions in case you ever find yourself in this scenario. (After all, the best solution to having one plan destroyed is to make sure you have another option immediately available to you.)

As you proceed in your college search and college equestrian goal-setting, then, consider how you’ll answer each of the following questions – and what those answers will mean for your eventual college decision:

  • If I don’t make the equestrian team at Dream University, will I be okay with practicing hard as a first-year student and trying out again as a sophomore? To be frank, if the only reason you want to attend Dream University is because of their equestrian team, your college search is decidedly not deep enough and you need to expand your school list to make sure your academic, financial, and social needs are covered before you can even begin to consider your riding goals. But if the school is a fit in all of those ways and you don’t make the team, it’s definitely time to consider how you would feel about being a practice-level rider as opposed to one who competes for the school every weekend. Are you willing to put the work in? Will you still feel there’s value to what you’re doing at the barn? Can you take criticism and use it to make the necessary improvements for next year?
  • If I don’t make the team as a freshman and don’t want to pursue team activities after that, how will I continue to fit riding into my schedule as a college student? Are there local barns in the area where you can board your horse and/or take riding lessons? Will you have the necessary transportation to get you there on a regular basis (bike or car, depending on the distance)? And what will your academic schedule look like – will it be conducive to leaving campus a few times a week to ride? (Prospective science majors beware – you’ll have a lot of lab hours in front of you!) And if you don’t have the financial support of an organized club or team, can you afford to continue riding while pursuing your degree?
  • What facet of team membership is most important to me as a college rider? The answer to this question might be the most important one for you to determine, students, as it has the potential to steer your entire college search from here on out. For example, if you value team camaraderie and the bonds that happen in practice and traveling to competitions most of all, then you’ll be fine at a school where you might not compete until you’re an upperclassmen because you’ll still have the day-to-day practice events at the barn and a group of like-minded people around you. If, however, you have specific goals you want to achieve as an intercollegiate equestrian (post-season qualifications, national titles, etc.), you’ll need to be part of not only a program that can support your journey, but where you’ll have the ability to compete enough to make those dreams reality. (You’ll also need to be the type of person who can thrive in such a highly-charged, highly-competitive atmosphere. Teams whose riders win national titles aren’t just out there to have fun – they have specific training regimens and detailed competition strategies.)

As I tell each and every student I work with on a regular basis, the college search is very much a buyer’s market and they are the buyers. Going through the frustration and extra work of changing oneself simply to fit into a dream college and/or dream college riding program is a sure way to set the wheels of failure – or, at the very least, misery – into motion. Instead, take the time now to investigate the schools you’re interested in thoroughly and then ask yourself what your life will look like at each one if you’re on the team and if you aren’t on the team.

And then remember that sometimes not making the team can open new and unexpected doors to you – just be ready to step through them when they appear. (Actress Lisa Kudrow gave this same advice to the Vassar class of 2010 during her commencement address which outlined how getting fired from the show Frasier was the best thing that ever happened to her.)

(Need help searching for the right college and riding program? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book to guide your journey.)

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