This small college in Michigan encourages students on the riding team to value community service as much as blue ribbons.
What happens when you encourage a determined and accomplished group of collegiate-level equestrians to give back to their community? At Albion College in Albion, Mich., you get almost $1,000 raised to fight cancer during a Relay For Life  event on Nov. 19.
“The students did it all on their own,” said Randi Heathman, the recruitment coordinator for the Albion equestrian program. “Albion College has done the Relay For Life for many years. This was the first year we had students participate and represent the equestrian program. They surprised me in a good way.”
The staff at Albion’s Nancy G. Held Equestrian Center has a history of nudging student-riders toward service activities, such as volunteering at local horse rescues and participating in the town’s parades and community events.
“We’re in a very small town in south-central Michigan, and it’s a small town that is Mid-Western and doesn’t have a ton of money,” said Heathman. “With equestrian sports, there’s a bit of elitism, and all of our kids are the most down-to-earth, normal kids. We’ve always encouraged them to get out on campus and community and dispel the myths that surround equestrian sports. They’ve embraced that. That’s been the mindset from Day 1. They are privileged to be in college and ride in college, and they’re all aware how lucky they are. They try to be visible so they are approachable, and encourage people to come into the barn and meet the horses and have that experience that suburban and city kids rarely get.”
Heathman was pleased that the riding club members have been particularly focused on service-oriented activities this fall. “It’s just been a mindset that they’ve had,” she said. “They usually fundraise for horse shows and things, but this time it was completely separate.”
Lauren Levy, a senior from Amherst, Mass., who is majoring in political science with a minor in economics and management, said participating in Relay For Life was a total equestrian club effort. With 86 members spread among three different disciplines (hunt seat, dressage and western), the students often find it hard to bring the whole organization together with one project.
“This year we decided it was really important to the club to get more involved on campus and in our community,” said Levy, 21. “Relay For Life is a big thing the school does, and it’s still relatively new and growing. We decided to do it to get involved in something the school is doing. That’s definitely been something that’s been a priority for the equestrian clubs throughout our years. We’ve been encouraged to get more involved with the school to get more acknowledgement as a sports team. We also wanted to bring all the teams together working for one thing. Even people who weren’t on the Relay For Life team helped with the fundraising.”
The Relay For Life began in 1985 when Dr. Gordy Klatt, a Tacoma, Wash., colorectal surgeon, decided to raise money for his local American Cancer Society office and show support for his patients who’d battled cancer. Klatt was an avid runner, so he put his skills to use and spent 24 hours circling the track at Baker Stadium at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. He ran for more than 83 miles. That first year, nearly 300 of Klatt's friends, family, and patients watched as he ran and walked the course. Throughout the night, friends donated $25 to run or walk with Klatt for 30 minutes. His efforts raised $27,000 to fight cancer.
The next year, Klatt planned the first relay team event with the help of Pat Flynn, and 19 teams raised $33,000 in the City of Destiny Classic 24-Hour Run Against Cancer. Since then these runs and walks to fight cancer have popped up all over the country.
Albion’s Relay For Life event went for 12 hours, beginning at 6 p.m. In all Relay For Life events, participants must have someone walking throughout the night, though it doesn’t have to be the same person. The relays run overnight, up to 24 hours, because “cancer never sleeps.” For Albion equestrians, their night of fundraising began after a long day at the barns running a dressage show.
“We had a home dressage meet, and all the other team members are required to help at the show,” said Levy. “Almost all of us were at the barn early that morning and working all day. We had groups of people sign up for different times to walk, so the people who’d been working all day didn’t have to be there all night. It was really cool because most of the people ended up staying the whole time. We had three to four people signed up for each three-hour shift, and most of the time we had more. It was really wonderful, and it really surprised me how much everyone was dedicated to it and how everyone pitched in. It wasn’t just walking, it was helping decorate, raising money. It brought everyone together and got our name out there.”
While Albion hosts three different riding teams, the school doesn’t offer an equine degree. Instead, students study for the International Trainers License through the British Horse Society.
“Their majors are pretty broad,” said Heathman of the riding team members. “We have a lot of accountants this year. Last year we sent several to medical school. They have a diverse sense of what they’re doing. Business and sciences are most common. We went to the British Horse Society, because if you gave a traditional degree, employers, future employers, they know what that is. Business is a similar curriculum across the board wherever you go. The equine studies vary across the country. The BHS is the same program everywhere. They’re recognized in 38 countries, and there’s international recognition and understanding.”
Levy, who chose Albion specifically for their riding program, said that being part of the equestrian club and helping run events like the Relay For Life team has already prepared her for her future.
“Every question they asked me in my interview [with the company I will be working for after graduation] I can relate to my equestrian club,” said Levy. “Working with different people and different personalities and keeping people engaged and dedicated has really helped me learn different styles of leadership and organization. It’s helped me make ideas come to life. It was my first time doing a Relay For Life team, and I wasn’t sure how it would work out, and it was really amazing to see how much effort everyone put into it. It was amazing to see it grow.”
“Any time they do anything like this, they always come back with that sense of their own empowerment,” said Heathman. “We always encourage them, but it’s another thing for them to actually go and do it and understand how it impacts them. They all seem to have a real sense of wanting to give back and have that sense of giving. Albion is a school that encourages their students to think beyond themselves and their world. I can see them moving on and continuing to give back in some way.”