Our columnist explores the similarities and differences between the major riding programs, such as IHSA, NCAA and ANRC.
Intercollegiate riding opportunities have really evolved since the Intercollegiate Horse Show Associ-ation was established in 1967 and the American National Riding Com-mission, founded in the 1940s, began offering a championship in 1978.
Over the past two decades, options for students who want the opportunity to compete for their college or university as an equestrian—and perhaps even fund a part of their college experience through scholarships—have increased significantly.
Now collegiate riding includes dressage sponsored by the Intercollegiate Dressage Association as well as saddle seat under the auspices of the Intercollegiate Saddle Seat Riding Association. The IHSA has added stock seat equitation and reining to its competition format, and in 1998 the National Collegiate Athletic Association recognized equestrian as an emerging sport for women in hunt seat and horsemanship and reining at the Division I and II levels.
Because of the diversity in college riding opportunities, there really is something for everyone, but you have to do your homework to understand what you can expect from each individual team and program.
The challenge is to first understand the type of college environment that will best suit your educational needs and then research those colleges’ riding programs and teams. Armed with this information, you can find the right balance between these two aspects so that you choose the overall college experience that’s best for you.
Each of the associations sponsoring collegiate riding is dedicated to protecting the welfare of the horse, fostering the growth and recognition of our sport at a national level while providing opportunities for riders to grow and develop. The associations share these common goals, but there are differences in the major hunt seat programs that prospective college riders, their parents and trainers should know.
The Homework Starts Early
The IHSA is the largest of the organizations with 370 member colleges and universities and serving more than 8,000 riders. The IHSA was founded on the precept that competitive collegiate riding should be affordable and open to riders of all skill levels.
In IHSA-sponsored competitions, the entry-level rider’s impact on a team’s success is just as important as that of a team’s most advanced and experienced riders. IHSA teams welcome and need riders of all skill levels, and the IHSA offers a team experience that focuses on each rider becoming adaptable to a variety of horses.
At an IHSA show you draw the horse’s name, get on and without any warm-up perform in equitation on the flat or over fences. IHSA competition also provides riders with the dual opportunity to advance to post-season competition as individual competitors, as well as a team member.
What’s interesting about the IHSA from a student’s viewpoint is that the 370 member schools represent nearly every type of educational environment and academic major a student could be seeking. IHSA-member institutions include some of the top tier colleges and universities, state universities, small and large public and private institutions, coed and single-sex schools.
The IHSA programs range from varsity teams at schools that offer athletic scholarships for riders, college-sponsored teams that are one aspect of historically strong and diverse riding programs, club teams supported by student activity funds and student-organized and -run teams that operate out of a nearby stable.
You will find that the NCAA colleges, which also have IHSA teams, often provide riders opportunities to show beyond the IHSA experience. The coaching staff at these colleges will work around their students’ academic commitments to provide them the opportunity to compete at U.S. Equestrian Federation-rated shows on top-quality college-owned horses or on their own horses.
This diversity of options is a double-edged sword. While it provides students many more options, it also means that you have to personally research the facility, coaching staff and college support for each individual team to be sure you really understand what each program has to offer.
IHSA teams may be small with little school support, or they might have 60 riders some of whom are on athletic scholarships and all of whom have their competitive fees underwritten by the school.
Many IHSA schools offer scholarships to riders of a variety of skill levels. There are almost no restrictions on an IHSA rider. You could be a young professional who is attending college and still compete for an IHSA team, or you might be an athletic individual who just learns to ride in college and competes in the walk-trot division.
A Different Playing Field
When you begin to look at the NCAA you’ll find that there’s a shift in focus because the competitions are aimed at the more experienced rider. The NCAA rider is the equivalent of the IHSA open equitation rider, and they’re expected to be competitive at the 3’6″ equitation level.
In the IHSA and NCAA a rider might be recruited to compete primarily in equitation on the flat or with a focus on equitation over fences while a few riders may represent their teams in both competition phases.
The NCAA mission is that college sports at the varsity level are intended to showcase top-tier athletes, so the pool of riders that NCAA schools recruit from is much smaller than the group from which IHSA teams recruit. In addition to potential scholarship money, NCAA athletes receive the same structure (health, fitness and weight training requirements) and benefits (general academic counseling, priority registration and tutoring services as other student athletes at the university.
NCAA competitions are head-to-head match ups on the same horse so there’s no “luck-of-the-draw” involved in the competition, and the competitors are given a four-minute warm-up period.
Equitation on the flat consists of a prescribed equitation pattern done in a lettered arena, similar to the program ride portion of the ANRC competition. The equitation over fences is similar to the IHSA except that one rider from each team rides the same horse, and they are each given a score. The rider with the higher score gets a point for her team.
There are currently 18 NCAA Division I and four Division II schools that sponsor varsity-level equestrian teams. These programs are bound by all of the NCAA rules and regulations. This requirement has a major impact on contacts that college coaches can have with prospective athletes as well as requiring that all potential athletes go through the NCAA clearinghouse process. These high school riders must also meet the NCAA amateur definition, which is quite different from the way the USEF defines an amateur.
Because the cost of horse care and competing is expensive, high school riders can maintain their amateur status as long as the money their horse wins doesn’t exceed their expenses for competing (travel, feed, stalls, entries, braiding, etc.).
However, NCAA riders who show their hunter or jumper at horse shows held during the academic year (including Thanksgiving, Christmas and other breaks) must be willing to not accept any prize money the horse might win. Prize money won by a horse ridden by an NCAA rider during the academic year cannot have that money applied to the show bill, nor can it be accepted by the trainer, rider’s parent or the horse’s owner.
The good news is that the NCAA revised this policy so that the summer break is excluded. However, the scholarship dollars these athletes receive in all likelihood makes up for any prize money they might not be able to accept.
Additionally, NCAA riders must understand that in order to have a job during the school year or the summer months they must receive clearance prior to being employed. These are realities that the NCAA rider must accept and understand as a part of her team commitment.
The ANRC shares the goals of the IHSA and NCAA, but the organization’s primary mission is to promote the highest quality of educated riding while preserving and promoting the American System of Forward Riding.
Their championship was established to showcase the horse-and-rider partnership through three riding tests, as well as a written test of the rider’s knowledge of stable management, horse care and riding theory.
The NCAA and IHSA competitions test the rider’s ability to adapt quickly to a new horse and present that horse effectively either on the flat or over jumps.
In the ANRC competition format, an eight-minute individual program ride, a three-foot Maclay-type course and a three-foot hunter derby-like course are used to evaluate the rider’s ability to demonstrate a partnership that allows her to enhance the quality of the horse’s performance. This type of competition provides an incentive for a rider to work with a horse over a period of time to draw from the horse its best possible performance.
Obviously, attending an ANRC competition is more expensive than IHSA or NCAA events because you take your equine partner with you. In the IHSA and NCAA, the “host school” provides the horses for all of the competitors to ride during the event.
Still, the ANRC competition is a nice complement to the tests that IHSA and NCAA events provide for the collegiate rider, and for some riders it may be a more satisfying experience. Nearly every college that participates in ANRC-sponsored competitions also has an IHSA team. NCAA riders would probably enjoy this experience as well, but they are limited in the number of competitions in which their teams may compete.
A Note To College Riding Coaches
All of the collegiate riding associations have something special to offer, and they each serve a different segment and provide a different experience for the college rider.
While there are moments when as coaches we might be in competition with each other to recruit a particular student athlete, it’s imperative that we also remember that we’re all in this together to help make our sport the best it can be and to increase its accessibility. Who knows? We may one day have a post-season tournament where the top teams from each of these associations come together for a riding test using elements of each of their formats.
Until then, it’s important that we help each student we talk with understand the many options available to her so that she can choose a college and a riding experience that best meets her goals and needs.
Shelby French has been the director of riding at Sweet Briar College (Va.) since 2000. Previously, she served in the same position at St. Andrews College (N.C.) for 16 years. She’s a USEF R-rated judge and has coached and trained hunters, jumpers and equita-tion riders on the A-rated circuit through-out the Southeast. She serves on the Board of the American National Riding Commission and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association.