? Charles Mann
Nicole Bourgeois hadn't expected her duties as a University of South Carolina Equestrian Team member to include hanging outside the football stadium or basketball arena on big game days. But she found herself there, manning a booth and allowing her college peers to ask questions and interact with two horses to promote the NCAA equestrian team to the student body. In addition to helping the horses stay calm in unfamiliar settings, Nicole had to stretch her somewhat shy nature to be outgoing.
Putting herself in unfamiliar circumstances was one of the many beneficial college-riding experiences for Nicole. Alumni from various schools say they also have gained skills to help master life's great juggling act while riding for their equestrian teams. These lessons, including leadership and time-management skills, the ability to contribute to a team and excel as part of it, and lifelong networking connections, have served them well in careers within and outside the equine industry. Team riding also deepened and diversified the horsemanship knowledge of many and even gave some a leg up in the job hunt.
Teamwork and Leadership
Learning to be a team player was one of Jordan Siegel's favorite lessons from her days as a star on the Savannah College of Art and Design Equestrian Team in Georgia. ?Although she knew in high school that she wanted to work with her mother as a training partner at Summer Hill Farms in Flower Mound, Texas, Jordan considered college a must. She earned a degree in media and performing arts and served as captain of the three-time American National Riding Commission champion SCAD team for three of her four years there.
"My favorite part of college riding was learning how to be part of a team and really enjoying it," says the 2006 graduate in whose name a $500 academic scholarship is awarded each year. "The team aspect is much different than what you experience as part of riding with a training barn. Everybody on the team is accountable for his or her own actions, and each individual's actions affect the team. If one person makes a mistake, the whole team suffers." That's true in a competitive context and beyond. If somebody is late for the team bus or doesn't pull his or her weight with barn chores it impacts everybody negatively, Jordan says. "Emotionally, the fact that you are always there for each other produces a different relationship than you have with your average friends."
Learning to build relationships was one of the biggest dividends of college riding, agrees Daniel Geitner. At 36, Daniel is now a well-established professional, but the real-world benefits of collegiate team riding are as vivid to him today as they were when he was a star of the St. ?Andrews Presbyterian College Intercollegiate Horse Show Association squad in Laurinburg, North Carolina. The Cacchione Cup winner as a freshman in 1994, Daniel now runs the 55-horse hunter/jumper Daniel E. Geitner Stables in Aiken, South Carolina. "Most of the shows we went to we were stuck in a van for six or seven hours together," he recalls. "You learned to meet new people and mesh with them pretty quickly!"
Dressage rider Robin Guter brought two horses to the University of Findlay in Ohio, so she didn't compete often in the school's Intercollegiate Dressage Association competitions. She found many other ways to be a valuable team player, however. She often rode during the "parade," when the host school's horses are shown at the walk, trot and canter so opponents can size up which of their riders will be the best match.
Jordan, a three-time IHSA national individual champion, adds that as team captain from her sophomore year forward, the diplomacy she developed in that role has direct applications in her work as a trainer. "It's a skill that you have to work on every day, but the team was a good place to learn to be a leader, not a dictator, and also a friend. I learned to be the kind of leader whose teammates could let me know if I was being unreasonable, ?because that's what friends are for." The captain's role, she adds, came with the supervision of coaches who helped her learn its boundaries.
Robin credits the time-management skills she learned riding for Findlay with helping her earn a promotion just eight months after taking her first job as a pharmacist. Graduating in 2010 with a double major in equine science and pharmacy, she says learning to be super productive was a "huge benefit" and "one of those things you learn without realizing that you are learning it."
Beginning her collegiate days by getting to the school's barn at 4 or 5 a.m. to help care for the horses or get in a ride helped Robin become "really good at scheduling my day and getting a lot of things done."
Alisa Berry, a 2003 graduate of Sweet Briar College in Virginia, agrees. "The escalated level of responsibility taught me that if I wanted to do something badly, time management is huge," she says. "I learned that a life with horses is what I wanted, but that it requires time and sacrifices. I learned it was worth it to me to make those.
"If you are going to ride in college, you need to wake up in the morning with a plan," Alisa stresses. "You are not watching soap operas! You have to know what you need to get done each day."
Those lessons served Alisa extraordinarily well. She works full time as a sales rep for feed company Augusta Co-op, and has a 2-year-old daughter with her husband, trainer Jason Berry, whom she assists with office tasks. She also continues to ride every day and compete on the hunter/jumper circuit as an amateur.
With a laugh, Alisa recalls thinking that life after college would be less hectic. "I thought how nice it would be in the ?real world' not having homework, and I had the perception that a parent's day is done at 9 p.m. But at college, you have somebody cooking dinner for you. Even if it's a bad dinner, it's there for you in the dining hall.
"I think the stress level of meeting deadlines and juggling so much is the same in and after college," she continues.
Diverse Horsemanship Knowledge
Gaining a broader horsemanship knowledge was a benefit of Nicole's four years on South Carolina's National Collegiate Athletic Association team. A lifelong hunter/jumper rider, Nicole admits, "I had never seen a Western competition or sat in a Western saddle my whole life." South Carolina had a fun tradition in the off-season before the holiday break. "The hunt-seat riders rode Western and vice versa," she explains. "We broke up into teams and had a competition so we could see how the ?other side' actually felt."
In addition to learning that "Western is hard: I'm terrible at it!" the 2010 graduate with a retail-management degree gained valuable experience for her current position as a buyer for Gallop Saddlery in Tigard, Oregon. Although the store leans toward English products, having some ?experience in the Western world has been as asset.
Exposure to diverse horsemanship techniques was an asset, agrees Alisa. "In the process of learning to be a team player, you see that there are different ways to do something." In her work as a feed and supplies sales rep today, that's helped her better understand the needs of her clientele, which range from amateurs who maintain one horse in their backyards to professionals managing big stables.
The expanded horsemanship knowledge has also had applications elsewhere, especially because in competition sanctioned by IHSA, NCAA and IDA, athletes ride unfamiliar horses provided primarily by the host school. Another big common denominator is that riders are allowed little to no time to practice with or school mounts before entering a class.
Robin's role as a parade rider for Findlay improved her ability to evaluate dressage horses and horse/rider matchups. She has drawn on that knowledge often in choosing horses for her own riding or as breeding prospects, which she views as a potential second career.
For Daniel, honing catch-riding skills is also near the top of his list of collegiate riding dividends. "You show up and get along with whatever horse you get," he says. "That's been great for me as a trainer because a lot of my business is still as a catch rider."
A Networking Edge
Daniel continues to count on connections made during school, both those established within the St. Andrews team and beyond it while competing in new venues in front of new acquaintances. "I had done a lot of horse shows in my area before college, but traveling to shows beyond that opened my eyes to many good, well-educated business people." St. Andrews' coach during Daniel's heyday, Shelby French, recognized his natural gifts when he was a pony rider and was thrilled to have him on the team. Later, a professional friendship ensued that included Shelby buying a grand-prix horse for Daniel to ?campaign.
When he needs a new ?employee or has a horse who's suitable for the collegiate circuit, Daniel's first call is to his alma mater or another of the many schools woven into his professional network.
Nicole's fellow USC graduate Megan Massaro says being an NCAA athlete gave her a significant head start in the job search and "added a lot of clout to my r?sum?." Along with athletes from other sports, the South Carolina riders ?received terrific job skills preparation before graduating. "One summer we were sent around [USC home city] Columbia for mock ?interviews with real companies and prospective employers," she relays. "We actually had etiquette dinners where we learned how to eat properly if we were being interviewed during a meal."
University of South Carolina won the NCAA Varsity championships in Megan's first year and continued to be a top contender throughout her tenure. A top ?Junior with Don Stewart and Bibby Farmer Hill, Megan was recruited by a few NCAA schools and says she remains thrilled with her decision to say "yes" to South Carolina. She graduated in 2010 with a degree in entrepreneurial management and works in a research capacity in the oil and gas industry in South Texas. It's an interesting, busy job that unfortunately leaves her only a little time to ride.
"Just being an NCAA athlete speaks volumes to prospective employers," she continues. "If you were very successful [in competition], more power to you, but whether you were successful or not, the experience gives you a huge leg up on life after college."
Coming full circle, Jordan and Daniel now enjoy supporting current college stars. With Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University nearby, Jordan and her mother Laura Hightower's Summer Hill Farms counts several collegiate equestrians as clients.
Daniel promotes collegiate equestrian membership to his Junior riders and places a high priority on helping them get recruited. Especially for those interested in riding for one of the 23 schools currently offering NCAA teams and the scholarships that sometimes accompany those opportunities, Daniel targets the major equitation finals and helps students put riding videos together for recruiters.
Established in 1998, the NCAA circuit didn't exist during Daniel's collegiate days. Although equestrian is a women's-only NCAA sport, Daniel is awed by the amount and intensity of recruiting it has triggered and the increased number of ?opportunities to ride in college, regardless of what league is involved.
Whatever the college riding circuit?NCAA, IHSA, IDA and ANRC?the similar life skills they all offer are evident in the successful adult lives of the thousands of riders who've chosen any collegiate riding path.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.