It benefits riders, trainers and the entire industry.
The equine industry as a whole has suffered from the recent decline in the U.S. and global economies. In the last six years, as the cost of maintaining a horse has increased while disposable incomes decreased, we’ve seen a reduction in overall participation and activities. However, even during this decline, one facet of the industry has shown substantial growth: collegiate riding, particularly the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, which has English and Western divisions, and the Intercollegiate Dressage Association.
In 2011, the IHSA, founded in 1967, had grown to include 37 regions in eight zones with more than 400 college teams in 43 states and Canada, and more than 8,600 active riders. The IDA, which began in 2000, has seen a 50 percent growth over the last five years. This shows the interest students have in making riding part of their college experience, as well as the value college administrations place on providing such opportunities in an affordable manner for the institution and their student riders.
For many years, sales ads have dotted the pages of The Chronicle of the Horse with the familiar line “owner off to college.” While this remains a reality for most horse/rider teams, college riding offers an opportunity for riders to remain connected to their sport without having to provide their own horse. It prevents the unwelcomed choice of having to abandon one’s passion in order to pursue an education. This isn’t just good for the rider, but it’s also great for the horse industry. It keeps the student active in the sport and, therefore, more likely to continue after college.
The growth of the IHSA, IDA, American National Riding Commission and the National Collegiate Equestrian Association have provided a venue for students to stay active in the competitive aspects of our industry without having to “step back” with the hope of returning some day. Although each association offers its own venue and competitive format, all have the common thread of providing a pure form of competition for the college rider while requiring a minimum of expense.
Beyond the rider, collegiate riding also offers opportunities for trainers to increase their businesses. Coaching a college team can provide additional revenue streams and help expand the trainer’s knowledge and skill set. Unfortunately, today’s trainers often don’t understand the basic aspects of riding as part of the college team and the challenges and opportunities it affords both trainer and rider. I’ve listed below some important points about college riding’s benefits and challenges.
- Collegiate riding is all equitation based.
In my long ago junior years, I rode with Kathy Paxson and Anne Kenan at Hunter Hill Farm in Atlanta. At that time I always thought of the equitation classes as time to throw the shoulders back and keep your fingers closed.
Kathy Paxson gave me a definition that I still use today: Equitation is defined as creating quality. This purest form of the word could not find a more prominent place than in the various associations that require riders to enter the competition ring on an unfamiliar horse that’s been chosen by a random draw or coach’s assignment. Gone is the advantage of a long-established relationship between horse and rider. In its place is the challenge of having to find the animal’s “buttons” from a few cues provided by the horse’s owner and a handful of suggestions from a team coach, who also has limited knowledge of the animal’s quirks and talents.
In the South we have a saying, “Pretty is as pretty does.” While many riders may have the “look,” which can be honed by a skillful trainer and a suitable mount, collegiate riding is often a more challenging test of basic horsemanship. The collegiate rider must decide the ability, scope, agility and possible performance of the horse in the competition ring with a judge watching. There’s no schooling on the horse in IHSA. In the IDA a rider has 10 minutes of warm-up before he enters the show ring. There’s no long-term relationship, or well-developed understanding, or the opportunity for trainers to fine-tune the horse beforehand.
Position fundamentals become more essential to performance and effectiveness. Throughout my 18 years at Virginia Intermont College, I’ve been continually drawn to the basics that can be instilled in a rider on the longe line rather than in more entertaining lessons. In collegiate riding, I’ve seen over and over again that the three keys to success are foundation, foundation, foundation. If a rider doesn’t have the basics down, he’ll struggle far more in the collegiate ring than in any other forum. Conversely, if a rider succeeds in the collegiate ring, he’s more likely to succeed in the traditional show ring.
- The collegiate world has a role to play in other areas of the industry.
Many professional riders have nothing but positive things to say about the invaluable lessons learned in intercollegiate riding. Greg Best and Beezie Madden are just two of a growing list of outstanding IHSA alumni who’ve gone on to excel in the sport.
After nearly two decades of involvement in the IHSA Nationals, I’m still surprised and happy to see the reactions of judges who’ve never before experienced collegiate competition finals. They’re always surprised and enthusiastic about the level of the riding and the quality of the horses. The same is true of the judges for the IDA’s national championship. Many collegiate stables contain an impressive line-up of equine stars from the traditional show world.
Today’s economy makes collegiate horse donations an attractive option for owners who may have mounts that, for various reasons, are no longer suited to the rigors of mainstream showing and training. Donated horses usually enjoy a less stressful and demanding life in their college homes, where their fame and appreciation continue to grow. College alumni frequently contact their alma mater to check on the horses they rode and loved during their college years. There are occasions when alumni provide permanent retirement homes for their four-legged collegiate teammates to live out their lives as beloved pasture ornaments.
Beyond the benefits for riders and horses, collegiate riding provides employment opportunities for professional horsemen through both faculty positions and as independent coaches. The college environment is also a healthy environment for clinicians and additional forms of instructional media such as DVDs and texts.
- College riding is now a link in the chain from child rider to adult rider.
The growth of collegiate riding has been spurred by the more recent establishment of the Interscholastic Equestrian Association and other similar associations geared towards middle and high school students. These follow a similar format to collegiate riding.
The concept of dealing with the “luck of the draw” and combining basics with performance among younger riders has resulted in a direct feeder system for collegiate riding which, when combined with regular horse show experience, produces better riders.
The team format, which requires each rider’s score to count toward the team’s totals, allows riders to experience the concept of the “team,” something that’s not common in equine sports. It gives riders a sense of belonging to a unit rather than the traditional individual focus of our sport where every success or failure is your own.
- College riding is a complement to, not competition for, the “real world.”
I fear that today’s trainers might feel that collegiate riding is a competitor for their student’s time, but that’s usually not the case. Colleges want to work with the industry to maintain connections for good riders and good horses and good trainers. We’re not trying to replace outside trainers; we’re working hard to keep riders involved in the sport during the years we often lose them.
We see ourselves as a bridge, not a final destination. Quite often we attract students who may have always wanted to ride but never quite managed to do so. The IHSA’s walk/trot and walk/trot/canter divisions and the IDA’s introductory division offer even beginning riders the opportunity to learn and compete. These new riders frequently continue to ride long after graduation.
- College eligibility and compliance is a foreign language.
It needn’t be so. While such requirements differ slightly among the various collegiate riding organizations, they’re generally straightforward. The experience a student brings to school determines his or her eligibility in the IHSA and IDA. IHSA compliance is simple: Students must be full time and in good academic standing regardless of amateur or professional status.
There’s no further compliance in regards to the industry. The National Collegiate Equestrian Association has stricter compliance but has worked hard in recent years to create a greater compatibility with the industry. The American National Riding Commission requires riders to have amateur status. All of these organizations, regardless of their differences and similarities, provide great opportunities that make it worthwhile for students and trainers to make the effort to understand their requirements.
Ultimately, collegiate riding is far more than a niche that has skyrocketed in recent years. It’s proven to be of great benefit to overall equine activity and resulted in growth that will continue in all college riding associations as these venues becomes a more accepted and better-known part of our sport.
An understanding between the collegiate and interscholastic riding worlds and the “real horse world” can only benefit today’s riders and trainers and our industry as a whole.
Eddie Federwisch is the director of the equine studies program at Virginia Intermont College, in Bristol, Va., and serves as the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association team coach. He is a director at large for the IHSA. During his 18-year tenure, VI teams have won 15 national riding titles, including three IHSA National Championships, three Intercollegiate Dressage Association National Championships, one American National Riding Commission National Championship, eight Overall Tournament of Champions Series titles, seven IHSA Zone Championships and 15 IHSA Regional Championships. Eddie is a U.S. Equestrian Federation “r” judge who is frequently found judging IHSA and NCAA horse shows. The VI equine studies program is among the most respected in the country, offering a degree often combined with other traditional college majors.