Centenary College’s Equestrian Program Teaches More Than Good Riding

Apr 1, 2010 - 10:00 PM

Since the school began offering riding classes in the 1930s, Centenary has paved the way for equestrian education.

Centenary College’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association hunt seat team riders had no expectations when they arrived at IHSA Nationals last April. They wanted to be successful, but their goals centered on riding well and having fun.

So it was a sweet surprise when they walked away with the school’s first Collegiate Cup championship
since 1979.

“We always go for the gold, and we always come home with yellow,” said Michael Dowling, Centenary’s head coach, with a laugh. “It was so fantastic for the program to win. We were so pleased with the team. Not only because we won but also because of the confidence they had.

“The success was reflective of our department as a whole,” he explained. “From the top to the bottom, everyone pitched in and helped. We’ve had so many successful years, and to bring it to the next level just made the school recognize how good our students are and how strong our program is.”

Dowling, who has worked for Centenary, Hackettstown, N.J., for the past nine years, took over the reins of the IHSA team from Andrea Wells just last fall. Dowling, Bedminster, N.J., has been working in the hunter/jumper industry for more than 30 years and has had students competing and winning at the top levels of hunters and equitation.

“The challenging thing was trying to step into a position where the previous coach did such a good job. The team really loved her,” said Dowling. “That challenged me. I didn’t really know what to expect, and there were a lot of responsibilities that I had to assume. There were a lot of things besides just coaching the team. I had some big shoes to fill!”

With the assistance of Heather Clark, who has also had many successful students in the equitation and hunter rings, Dowling helped guide his young team to the win through a combination of hard work and a lot of laughs.

“[The win] started at home. We had nice pool of talent to draw from, and we were really emphatic about trying to pull together the best team,” said Dowling. “We knew we had the potential to win, so we gave them as much opportunity to jump as we could.

“We also worked hard on developing them outside of the program,” he added. “When we got [to Nationals] we felt our homework was done, and we were able to make it enjoyable for them and keep it light hearted. They put enough pressure on themselves!”

The strategy, combined with Centenary’s consistency over the championships (they picked up ribbons in five
of the eight classes), enabled the young team to clinch the title.

Lindsay Clark’s winning ride in the open over fences class, in addition to Marissa Cohen’s blue in the intermediate fences, sealed the deal.

“There were a bunch of teams in the top spot, and it came down to the last class. I work well under pressure, and I was trying to put it all together to do the best I could for the team,” said Clark, New Paltz, N.Y.

“They had asked four riders to come and test for the open jump class, so when they didn’t call my number, we figured my score was high enough to win,” she recalled. “At that point, we knew we had won. We were so proud to come together as a team. It wasn’t just the effort of the people showing but of the entire Centenary program. That’s why it was so special, to be able to bring it back to them.”

Hands-On Approach

The Centenary College Equestrian Center is located about 8 miles from main campus, a quick 20-minute drive for most students. While the program and facility often go unnoticed by the school’s general population, the students who are involved in the program develop a fierce loyalty to it. It doesn’t take long to become part of the Centenary family.

“I don’t spend as much time at the barn since my classes are all on campus,” said Clark, 21, a business management major. “But I feel just as much a part of it as anyone else who is part of the program.”

Centenary offers a bachelor of science degree in equine studies, with concentrations in riding instruction, training, equine business management, communication for the equine industry, and equine science, as well as an associate degree in equine studies, and a certificate in therapeutic riding. Each concentration provides specialized training and classes to prepare students for a career in the equine industry.

“Because of the way the industry has grown, horses are extremely valuable,” said Kelly Munz, the department chairman of the equine studies program. “Employers are looking for an equine background as a foundation to their education. Getting a job without a college education is tough. This is the time to go to college, and go with people your own age. There are experiences you’ll have in college that are once in a lifetime. The whole experience of going to school is valuable. It’s four years of your life that goes very fast.”

In addition to the valuable life lessons often learned in a college setting, Munz, Long Valley, N.J., added that in a lot of situations students will want to become trainers, riders or grooms, but 10 years down the road they’ll want a change and simply don’t have any other options because they lack a college education.

Munz strongly believes in the practical side of equine education in addition to the classroom. Most of the academic classes involve hands-on assignments in the barn.

“We just started an equine therapies and rehabilitation class,” Munz said as an example. “We incorporate horses we have coming back from injuries into the class. Each student is assigned a horse to rehab over the semester. So much of the game is taking care of injuries.”

Centenary’s Faculty Shines

Centenary employs nine full-time faculty members and four to five part-time members in the equine program. Each professor is a professional in the industry in addition to holding a position at Centenary.

“We have a strong group of faculty members who continue to build and get stronger,” said Dowling. “We’re not just academic; we have a lot of diversity. We’re really fortunate to have strength in all the areas of our program.”

That diversity includes: Dr. Michael Fugaro, Centenary’s full-time veterinarian; Octavia Brown, a certified therapeutic riding instructor and a founder of the North American Riding For The Handicapped Association; Tara Clausen, a U.S. Equestrian Federation r-rated steward and hunter/ jumper rider; Timothy Cleary, manager of
the Garden State Horse Show and a judge, announcer and course designer; Sarah Marchese, an FEI-level dressage rider and trainer; and Dr. Lynn Taylor, an expert in equine nutrition. Other faculty members include former Centenary students and professionals from various aspects of the industry.

“I’m very proud to be working with the team I work with at Centenary,” said Munz. “Everyone is so educated and very good at what they do. We pride ourselves in the fact that we not only teach here, but we’re also active in the equine industry.”

Students at Centenary are provided with the opportunity to participate in clinics throughout the year, and visiting clinicians have included George Morris, Mike Henaghan, Candice King, Michael Page, Scott Hofstetter, Frank Madden, and others. Centenary also hosts USEF Judges’ Clinics and hosted another on April 5-6.

“It’s always good to get an education from someone else,” said Munz. “From a teaching standpoint, exposure, especially in our program, is valuable. We’re educating young professionals, so it’s so important to hear opinions and thoughts from other professionals, as well.”

The department leaders highly encourage students to take internships during their time at Centenary, and with the addition of online classes, many are able to spend whole semesters working in a practical setting away from campus. A semester-abroad program is also offered through Hartpury College in England, which features an internationally renowned equestrian program.

Lessons In And Out Of The Tack

The riding program at Centenary consists of two lessons per week, normally on the flat first, then an over fences lesson on the second day. Riders of all levels are welcome and encouraged to participate in the program, which focuses mostly on the hunter/jumper discipline. Centenary also has a strong dressage program, however, with its Intercollegiate Dressage Team having a presence at Nationals since the championships began in 2001.

“Our [intercollegiate riding programs] have always been strong,” said Dowling. “We have a lot of riders that compete on the [hunter/jumper team, ANRC team] and IDA as well [as IHSA]. We encourage them to be diverse so they have more opportunities. We’re trying to develop riders that will be diverse in the industry.”

Team practices are typically conducted on Fridays, and students are placed into small groups depending on their experience. While the weekly riding lessons concentrate on developing skills, the team practices are more about finesse and learning how to be horse show savvy.

“Michael is always teaching us skills we can take with us,” said Cohen, West Chester, Pa. “He teaches us horse lessons that are going to go with us into our professional careers and how to influence the horse in a way that will apply in the real world.”

The coaches often take away students’ stirrups for the entire flat session and teach them how to simplify their riding by solidifying their positions. Because the IHSA and IDA focus on drawing an unknown horse, the coaches focus on concepts that can apply to any horse. They also try to strengthen their students’ skills by putting them on horses they may not be as successful riding.

“One thing Michael and I both stress is that this is a team sport,” added Heather. “Even though in the horse show world it’s very individual, this is a team effort. They do a lot of team bonding to support one another. It’s a lot of hard work in practice, and we know where each rider wants to be, short term and long term; we challenge them to reach their goals.”

Dowling and Heather work well as a team themselves, and the students appreciate their tag-team effort to make practices run smoothly and successfully.

“They are just so positive in the way they teach and coach us,” said Clark. “Every lesson, every practice, we always set goals for ourselves, and they teach us how to adapt to other horses and to ride, but also to have fun. The main thing I enjoy about them is their focus and drive and determination to make us better but without putting pressure on. They’re both a lot of fun to be around.”

“You’re always learning here,” added Cohen, 20. “Something that Heather does really well, is she tries to include everyone. I think it’s really important to take that with you, because you never know who might be your neighbor in the future. She pushes us to work with people, not against them.”

A Program For Everyone

One of the biggest perks of Centenary’s program is the quality of horses. About 100 horses grace the 65-acre facility, and every one is under the watchful eyes of the professors and dozens of students on a daily basis. Centenary’s horses are so loved that the college has developed a memorial page on their website in honor of such important teachers.

“All of our school-owned horses are donations,” said Munz. “The majority come from professionals across the country, including many local professionals. We’ve received them from as far as California. Most of them are horses that come off the circuit and are looking for the next career. Our program offers that opportunity.”

The experience levels of the horses vary from therapeutic horses to green young horses, FEI-level dressage competitors to A-rated hunters. Having such a diverse group of horses allows Centenary to welcome students of all experience levels and disciplines.

“We offer classes for everyone,” said Munz. “In IHSA we need beginner riders as well as advanced, but we’re putting a concept into play that rewards the riders who really want to be serious about it. So much of our recruiting is based around IHSA, and if students are really looking to compete in college, they’re looking at the IHSA results.”

“We encourage all of our students to broaden their horizons and do as much as they can while they are here,” said Dowling. “They don’t even have to ride; they all have a place in our program.”

A Generous Act

Lindsay Clark was ecstatic when she won the USEF/Cacchione Cup and then pushed her team to the Collegiate Cup championship at the 2009 IHSA Nationals. This year, she decided to let someone else rise to the top.

“She’s such a strong rider she could probably win it again,” said coach Michael Dowling. “But Lindsay is a very generous young lady, and she felt she would like to see someone else go on to try out the Cacchione Cup.”

Even though Clark will not compete at Nationals to defend her title, she hopes to help the team in whatever way she can.

“I decided not to do anything individually and just help the team out,” said Clark. “I didn’t want to completely cut it out, so if they ask me to go back and compete [at Nationals], I’d love to, but if not, that’s OK too.”

Clark received a $1,500 scholarship for her Cacchione Cup win and hopes to use the scholarship to help her ride in the Netherlands after she graduates this May.

A Quick Look At Centenary College

Founded in 1867, Centenary College, Hackettstown, N.J., went through many transitional periods, including shifting from its origin as a preparatory school, to a junior college for women (1940), a four-year women’s college (1976) and finally a co-educational four-year college in 1988. The master’s degree programs became available in 1995.

The college offers 19 bachelor’s degree programs with 14 concentrations, six associate’s degree programs, and 14 minors. Centenary also offers 10 master’s degree programs in addition to adult, accelerated and online education.

One of the benefits of attending a small college (Centenary has about 1,300 full-time undergraduate students) is the personal attention given to the students. Class sizes are small, usually about 15 students, with an emphasis on attendance and participation.

“It’s a small campus, and most of the teachers here are really helpful,” said Marissa Cohen. “I wasn’t the best student in high school, and now I’m getting straight As and made the Dean’s List this year. I credit the teachers for that.”

In addition to the riding teams, Centenary has 13 intercollegiate sports teams that are part of the NCAA division III.

Centenary’s riding program started in the 1930s, according to Dr. Raymond Frey, one of Centenary’s beloved history professors.

“For many years it was offered as one of the ‘skills courses’ in physical education,” said Frey. “A student would ride for two double periods a week. At that time there were still stables available in Hackettstown. Jack Santoris, who had horses up at Budd Lake during the tourist season, would bring them to campus after Labor Day and give riding lessons on campus.”

After World War II, Budd Lake became an all-year tourist attraction, and stables were disappearing from Hackettstown. There was talk of building a college equestrian center on the main campus, but school officials were worried about having enough space for the horses and offending the neighbors.

In 1972, a contract was signed with North Jersey Training Farm on Schooley’s Mountain. In 1973, increased interest in riding resulted in the Curriculum Committee voting to create the Horsemaster Program, as it was then called. IHSA participation started in the fall of 1973.

After a brief stay at Finistrre Farm in Washington Township, Warren County, Filly Hill, the current location of Centenary’s Equestrian Center, was purchased in 1978.

Centenary’s Concentrations De-Mystified

Riding Instruction and Training—for students who are interested in working as professional instructors and trainers in the disciplines of hunter seat equitation, hunters, jumpers and dressage. Students study methods of teaching and training horses, course design, judging, schooling the green or problem horse, and horse show management.

Equine Business Management—a concentration for students seeking business-related careers in the equine field. Courses include business administration, accounting, marketing and principles of management.

Communication for the Equine Industry—a concentration for students preparing to enter the fields of journalism, photography, mass media, advertising or public relations as they relate to an equestrian career goal. Courses include introduction to journalism, non-fiction freelance writing, photojournalism, advertising and media news writing and public speaking.

Equine Science—a concentration for students interested in pursuing careers in veterinary medicine, breeding facilities, pharmaceutical companies or graduate programs in the science-related fields. Courses include equine health, nutrition, breeding and reproduction, and equine musculoskeletal system.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Centenary College’s Equestrian Program Teaches More Than Good Riding ran in the April 2, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Intercollegiate

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