The Roots of College Riding

Meg O’Mara rides for the University of Georgia equestrian team, which won the 2014 National NCEA Championships. | © Lauren Shamon

Once upon a time, many horse-loving high-school seniors had to make a choice: go to college or keep riding. Today, you can do both, thanks to four organizations: Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, National Collegiate Equestrian Association, American National Riding Commission and Intercollegiate Dressage Association. Each evolved to fill a niche in the collegiate riding world, so if you’re heading to college, get ready to consider a wide range of opportunities.

Teammates take some time to laugh together at the 2014 IDA Nationals. | © High Time Photography

One goal that IHSA, NCEA, ANRC and IDA share is to make collegiate riding affordable. Through a variety of cost-cutting measures and fundraising techniques, they’ve not only brought expenses down to almost nothing, but they’ve also found ways to direct scholarships and other institutional support to riders. Another common goal is to level the playing field with innovative competition formats that supply quality horses to all riders and minimize other unfair advantages.

Most importantly, these organizations build bridges. They span the gap between the horse and college worlds on both ends of the experience—helping students enter college without having to give up riding and providing career and competition opportunities for them after graduation. They also connect student athletes, creating a camaraderie, team spirit and school pride that many riders never experience otherwise. On campuses offering equine science programs, these organizations help to connect your riding and academic educations, thus enhancing both.

Intercollegiate Horse Show Association

The organization most commonly associated with collegiate riding is IHSA, which Bob Cacchione started in 1967. One of four siblings attending college within a seven-year period, he remembers, “My parents came to me and said, ‘We can’t afford four colleges and you to continue riding. Something has to give.’ So I had to stop riding and I went to college.” Undaunted, he found a private barn near his Fairleigh Dickinson University campus in Teaneck, New Jersey, and formed a club with five other students. The club expanded to 40 members “overnight.”

University of Vermont student Alexandra Carlton receives the Cacchione Cup at the 2014 National Championships. | © Darian Quinn

By the time Bob was a sophomore, he was planning the club’s first horse show. He called Jack Fritz, a history professor and dean of the college of arts & sciences at Fairleigh Dickinson’s Madison campus, for help. Jack, a driving force behind many equestrian national governing organizations, agreed to bring a team of riders up to Teaneck to compete. Bob rented horses from the local barn and had riders draw them out of a hat. Altogether, 40 students competed in six classes.

The show was so successful that six other colleges asked Bob to run another competition the following spring. “After that, I looked at each of them and said, ‘Next year, you have a show, you have a show, you have a show and I’ll have a championship show.’ The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association was born—and I never looked back!”

Bob’s vision for IHSA was to give everyone an opportunity to compete. To make shows affordable, the host schools would provide the horses, tack and equipment. He created three different levels—Walk/Trot, Novice and Open—“because I wouldn’t have a Medal/Maclay rider compete against a Walk/Trot rider. That wouldn’t be fair.”

In this unique format, which IHSA still uses today, riders draw mounts randomly and enter the show ring without the benefit of a warm-up. (Riders not competing at the show are designated to warm up the horses.) Points earned for each placing are the same regardless of level, so a blue ribbon in the Walk/Trot division is just as valuable to a team as one in the Open division.

This format was so popular that college riding clubs flocked to the IHSA. Three of the early winners of the Cacchione Cup, awarded to the top English rider at IHSA Nationals, went on to win Olympic medals—show jumpers Beezie Madden, Greg Best and Peter Wylde—and a fourth, eventer Mark Weissbecker, won the USET Fall Three-Day Championships twice.

Then-sitting U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale attended the 1979 championships with his wife to watch their daughter, Eleanor, compete. Bob remembers, “They flew down to our host school, Middle Tennessee State University, with bomb-sniffing dogs and Secret Service agents.”

IHSA founder (and then-Farleigh Dickinson University student) Bob Cacchione gives a leg-up to Carol Finelli at the third IHSA hunt-seat show in 1969. | Courtesy, IHSA/Bob Cacchione

Before then, Northeast teams mostly comprised IHSA. That’s when MTSU’s head coach, Anne Brzezicki, suggested expanding to include Western riding. The board did so at the 1979 championships. “That opened up pretty much the rest of the country to IHSA,” says Anne. Eventually, the board also added a fourth level—Intermediate—to create a building block between Novice and Open.

Of the now 10,000 students competing each year, about 450 make it to nationals, which are held annually in different locations around the country. The organizers seek the highest caliber judges and horses. “Some rides may be better than others during the school year,” says Bob. “When riders get to nationals, they deserve the best rides we can give them.”

As the IHSA has grown, so too has the support for college riding teams. Once cash-strapped clubs are now enjoying state-of-the-art facilities and amenities. MTSU, for example, built a $21 million, 222,000-square-foot coliseum in 2003 with a bequest from Tennessee Walker breeders John and Mary Elizabeth Miller. “It’s a beautiful facility,” says Anne. “It’s busy 48 weekends a year, and 46 of them are horse events.” This fall, the Tennessee Miller Coliseum hosted more than 900 horses during the American Quarter Horse Association East Novice Championships. “What an awesome opportunity for our students to see a big chunk of the horse industry right here in our backyard,” says Anne.

The University of South Carolina team, led by Coach Boo Major, won the 2007 NCEA National Championship. | Courtesy, NCEA

Offering Western as well as hunt seat is one of the best things about IHSA, Anne says. “Probably 70 to 80 percent of our riders at MTSU do both. They don’t come to school doing both, but when they watch the other discipline and decide to try it, they find it’s very much fun. Each discipline teaches some skills better than the other one does. More importantly, they get a broader view of the horse industry and that opens their minds a little bit. The horse industry needs people who can see the big picture.”

Anne’s team works closely with the college’s horse science program, a degree program within its school of agribusiness and agriscience. “We ride in the same facility where we teach our courses; we use the same horses and the same teachers,” she says, adding that IHSA helps the school provide a well-rounded experience to these students. “An awful lot of kids who are seriously interested in horses have been waiting to learn to ride all their lives. IHSA teams can provide that opportunity because lower-level riders are just as important to the team as upper-level riders.”

In 2014, University of Vermont student Alexandra Carlton won the Cacchione Cup, which is awarded to the top English rider at the IHSA Nationals. | © Al Cook Photography

Students entering programs like MTSU’s are often surprised by the breadth of career opportunities available to them, Anne says. “A lot of them come in thinking they either have to be horse trainers or veterinarians. But we also have graduates who are judges, technical delegates, writers, barn managers and work for organizations. One designs riding clothes; another designs horse trailers with living quarters. There are so many jobs out there.

“There are a lot of leadership opportunities as well,” she continues. “These teams all have officers. They have to do budgeting, choose who’s going to show each weekend, raise funds, organize equipment and travel and get along with each other. You get 65 girls working together and there’s going to be some drama. They have to learn how to deal with that.”

IHSA even offers alumni opportunities. “It’s the only college organization I know that allows you to come back and participate,” says Bob. “You can’t come back as a former football player or swimmer or basketball player and say, ‘Coach, put me in.’ But here, if you still want to compete, you can, all the way up to the national championships.”

He credits much of IHSA’s success to the dedication of trainers such as Anne, West Point head coach Peter Cashman, former Cazenovia College head coach Naomi Blumenthal, Skidmore College head coach Cindy Ford and Stanford head coach Vanessa Bartsch. “Credentials like that are the backbone of IHSA that keeps it moving forward,” Bob says.

National Collegiate Equestrian Association

In 1998, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (the national governing body for intercollegiate athletics) classified equestrian as an “emerging sport”: a sport intended to provide additional opportunities and resources to female athletes to counterbalance male-only sports, such as football. This not only put equestrian on track toward becoming a full-fledged NCAA “championship sport,” but it also earned many equestrian teams new recognition and support from their schools and school athletic departments.

Since then, 22 teams have come under the varsity equestrian umbrella, now known as NCEA. They operate under all the same regulations and receive all the same benefits as other varsity sports. These vary from school to school, but they can include access to medical services, athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and tutors. “We create a family within a family when they come to college,” says Boo Major, who has coached the University of South Carolina Equestrian Team for 17 years and played an integral role in the development of NCEA. “We’re trying to help them be successful in college, not just on the equestrian side of things, but also in the classroom.”

Each NCEA team is allowed to offer as many as 15 equivalency scholarships per year. That means it can give 15 students a “full ride” or distribute the same amount of funds among a greater number of students. NCAA rules require riders to meet certain academic benchmarks and to maintain their amateur status, for example by not accepting prizes or prize money above a certain value. NCEA teams are not allowed to compete in more than one collegiate organization’s annual championship in any given year, although individuals can compete in multiple championships.

Averett University rider Shannon Stone competes at the 2014 IDA Nationals. | © Jessie Henderson

NCEA uses a two-team head-to-head format in which each horse is ridden by a member of each team. The rider who earns the higher score wins the point for her team. The team with the most points at the end of the meet is declared the winner. This format tries to eliminate the variable horse factor created by a “luck of the draw” format, says Boo.

The shorter NCEA format makes it fan-friendly, she adds. “A normal horse show lasts all day long. NCEA competitions average only about three and a half hours.”

NCEA meets include four events: two each in hunt seat—Equitation on the Flat and Over Fences—and Western—Reining and Horsemanship. Unlike IHSA’s multiple competition levels, the NCEA format offers only one level, just like any other varsity sport. To be competitive, teams like Boo’s had to phase out their lower-level riders and focus their recruiting efforts on open-level riders “so we were able to give more opportunities to the open riders.” She also had to make her team women-only. “I would love to have some of these very talented young men be part of my team, but in order to be counted as a women’s sport, my team has to be made up of all women. It’s just the niche that equestrian has carved out in the NCAA.” Fortunately, soon after South Carolina joined the NCEA, students on campus formed an additional club team, enabling all the riders who don’t make the varsity team—including men and lower-level riders—to continue competing in IHSA.

Since Boo’s team transitioned from IHSA to NCEA in 2005, it has enjoyed some benefits the riders didn’t even know they needed, such as a half-million dollar locker room, added by the school’s athletic department this past year. 

Being on a varsity team gives riders a stronger connection to the school, says Nancy Post, an associate athletics director at Baylor University, the current NCEA Championship host. “Student athletes help to bring recognition to their school. Athletics is oftentimes referred to as the ‘window to the university’—and equestrian is no different than any other sport in that regard.”

Boo adds that earning varsity status also helps to remove some of the stigma occasionally associated with equestrian sports. She says, “It helps us as a sport to gain respect within the collegiate community and within the NCAA.”

If the number of NCEA teams grows to 40, equestrian could solidify its status as an NCAA championship sport. However, time may be running out. This September, the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics recommended removing equestrian’s emerging status. Although this would mean that colleges could no longer use it to satisfy their NCAA divisional requirements, equestrian could continue counting for gender-equity efforts as a varsity sport. As of press time, NCAA had not yet approved this recommendation but the threat had already caused one institution, Kansas State University, to announce that it will drop its sponsorship of equestrian following the 2015–2016 season.

In response, NCEA is building a strategy to prove that the sport deserves a place in NCAA. Nancy says, “Over the last 12 months, we have seen an increase in the number of institutions expressing interest in the sport. Strategically, NCEA will encourage more colleges to sponsor equestrian teams and assist those new programs as they make the decision to add the sport. Equestrian deserves a place in the NCAA.”

American National Riding Commission

Even before Bob Cacchione established IHSA, a small group of college riding instructors and other equine professionals formed an organization to promote the teachings of Captain Vladimir Littauer. A Russian cavalry member who immigrated to the United States in the early 1920s, Capt. Littauer lectured, taught clinics and wrote many articles and books about what is now commonly called the American System of Forward Riding. Both directly and indirectly, he influenced the careers of such notable trainers as Jane Dillon, Bernie Traurig, George Morris, Paul Cronin and Lendon Gray.

ANRC began roughly 60 years ago as an affiliation of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance then became an independent nonprofit in 2006. “Basically it was an education organization to help people learn riding basics,” says Patte Zumbrun, chair of the ANRC board of directors and former head coach at Goucher College. “It’s a very structured, systematic approach to teaching riders. We focus on the quality of performance for both horse and rider: riding with the natural motion of the horse, developing good hunter movement and athletic jumping. Hours of practice on the rider’s position, fluid use of aids and understanding of forward riding are an essential part of the process.

“The other important piece is the schooling of the horses,” she continues. “We want our horses to be cooperative, mentally relaxed and calm but alert, carrying themselves in a very balanced way, whether they’re on the flat or jumping or cantering across a field. Students love to come to Goucher and ride our horses because we really teach the system—our horses are wonderful.”

In its early years, ANRC promoted a rider certification system, a series of tests measuring a rider’s progress through the different levels of the program. But, says Patte, “as the organization grew into the ’80s and ’90s, we found that people weren’t so into being rated on their riding. They were more interested in going to horse shows.”

To satisfy this need, ANRC developed its own national championship in 1978. Its format is much more complex than the IHSA and NCEA formats. Each rider completes four phases: a “program ride” including USEF hunter equitation tests, a “derby” phase ridden on an outside course, a “medal” phase over a course in the ring, and a written test based on riding theory and a specific stable-management topic. Riders compete on their own horses, horses owned or borrowed by their teams or, if they’re traveling a long distance, horses provided by the competition host.

“It’s so much fun,” says Patte. “The kids love it because they get so much feedback. You get more time in front of the judges—eight minutes for the flat test alone. And at the end of the competition, you can see your scores on each movement with comments. It’s pretty intense—and very competitive. We always try to get the best judges we can find,” she continues. “Last year the judges were Kip Rosenthal and George Morris.”

The championship, which will celebrate its 38th year in 2015, offers two levels: National (3-foot) and Novice (2-foot-6). Each year, 65 to 70 riders from 12 to 15 colleges attend. ANRC has also partnered with the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association to encourage the creation of midseason mini-competitions—or “horsemanship classes” run alongside regular shows—using the same four-phase format.

Many of today’s top collegiate riders choose to compete in both IHSA and ANRC as well as other open shows. For example, this year Savannah College of Art & Design rider Michael Kocher was the ANRC national division reserve champion, second to his teammate Ryan Genn, and finished third in open 

equitation over fences at IHSA Nationals.

University of Georgia’s riders celebrate after winning the 2014 NCEA National Championship. | Courtesy, NCEA

Intercollegiate Dressage Association

If you’re a dressage or event rider, there are plenty of opportunities for you, too. Dressage riders can participate in an IHSA-like horse-draw format offered by IDA, which began informally with a handful of East Coast colleges and secondary schools in 1995. This led to the official formation of IDA in 2001, followed by the organization’s first finals in 2002. Since then, the organization has expanded to eight regions across the country with 750 to 800 riders on approximately 60 teams.

Most IDA teams attend six to eight competitions a year. Each team consists of an Intro (walk/trot) rider, a lower Training Level rider, an upper Training Level rider and a First Level rider. Like IHSA, the host schools provide the horses, tack and equipment. But in IDA, riders get 10 minutes to warm up before their tests.

This format levels the playing field for riders with different dressage backgrounds, says Beth Beukema, IDA president and associate professor of equine studies at Johnson & Wales University. “Having the adaptability to ride a horse you’ve never sat on before in a dressage test after only 10 minutes is an amazing skill. Many upper-level riders have ridden schoolmasters but not the variety of horses that some lower-level students have ridden.”

The quality of competition is impressive, especially at nationals, says Beth. “We have a lot of S-level judges who say, ‘Wow! I don’t see this quality of competition at open shows.’ Even in the Walk/Trot classes, the horses go on the bit, through and engaged.”

In the beginning of each regular-season competition, the host-school riders demonstrate a few movements on the horses. Beth says, “The coaches have to size up the horses and know their riders to match them. There’s quite a bit of strategy to coaching it. If you see a horse doesn’t pick up a canter well, you might coach the rider to step a leg-yield into that canter to get the transition. If you see other little things, you can say, ‘OK, we’re going to work on that in our warm-up.’”

Johnson & Wales University student Kathleen Travello at the first IDA Finals in 2002 | © Carole McDonald

As with the other organizations, IDA strives to keep student costs low. “At some schools, like Johnson & Wales, students are given the same privileges as a hockey player,” Beth says. “All their entry fees, coaching and transportation are paid. All they need to provide is their riding breeches, hats and boots.”

Another perk of riding in the IDA? “A wonderful team feeling,” says Beth. “How many times do you go to a regular dressage show and no one even watches your test? At IDA competitions, you have a team clapping and cheering at the end of your test.”

Opportunities for eventers to compete in college are also expanding. The U.S. Eventing Association includes a long list of college eventing programs on its website, and a growing number of horse trials are hosting “collegiate team challenges” alongside their regular competitions. 

College Riding Prep

A rider competes at the 2014 IEA Hunt Seat National Finals. | © Ron Schwane

You don’t have to wait until college to get in on the school riding action. The Interscholastic Equestrian Association provides competitions for public and private school students in grades 6 to 12. Since hosting its first interscholastic invitational in 2000, it has grown to nearly 10,000 members in 36 states and expects to top 12,000 this year. It even offers a number of financial-aid packages and scholarships. “We want to make riding accessible for more people,” says executive director Roxane Lawrence.

By following a format similar to that of the IHSA, with the same horse-draw system and four levels, the IEA helps students prepare for collegiate-level competition. This, in turn, makes them better candidates for recruiters. Roxane explains, “College coaches know that you already can do the draw, that it’s not going to freak you out. They can look at your record and see what kind of success you’ve had in the format.”

Only about 25 percent of teams are currently affiliated with schools, but Roxane expects more schools to get involved. “As the kids receive more college scholarships and get into schools that they wouldn’t have otherwise, the schools are more interested in supporting them.”

The IEA is talking to the IDA about adding dressage to its competitions. It has also teamed up with the U.S. Pony Clubs to provide a written test at nationals. You can even compete in the IEA from home. Each month, it hosts a trivia contest on its Facebook page. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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