Given the myriad choices available, you can never start thinking about college too early. That's even truer if you want to ride horses while earning your degree. Typically the search starts during the freshman and sophomore years of high school, though it can start as early as middle school. Ideally a few final targets are locked in by the fall of junior year.
No matter when you get started, there are a mind-boggling number of options and considerations. Having received hundreds of inquiries in her 10-plus years immersed in the collegiate equestrian world, Miami University of Ohio Equestrian Center Director Lori Cramer says there are many questions to ask prospective colleges and universities. But first there are several to ask yourself, none of which are riding related.
Academic programs, geographic location, tuition, cost of living and size of the student body are among the first facts to know in determining whether a college is a good fit for you. Seemingly unimportant details, such as the population and character of the school's surrounding town or city, can have a big impact on your happiness over the course of your college years, Lori notes. She sometimes encounters students who focus only on a school's equestrian offerings, and that, she says, is a recipe for disaster.
With the big-picture inquiries answered, the next question is, "What kind of riding do I want to do during college?"
"There are so many schools with riding programs and so many ways to ride at school," notes Lori, an Intercollegiate Horse Show Association board member and IHSA Zone 6 chair. The choices range from taking a weekly riding lesson as a physical education class to earning a scholarship to ride competitively on the school's equestrian team.
The US Equestrian Federation is affiliated with four collegiate equestrian organizations or "venues" as Lori calls them. Founded in 1967, the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association is by far the largest with 370-plus participating colleges and universities. Twenty-three schools offer National Collegiate Athletic Association teams, 44 have Intercollegiate Dressage Association squads and there are 39 teams sanctioned by the American National Riding Commission.
IHSA and NCAA schools typically offer Hunt Seat and Western riding, while IDA serves dressage enthusiasts. As part of its effort to promote a systematic approach to riding, training and teaching, ANRC stages clinics, certifications and hunter competitions called Equitrials.
As a general rule, IHSA offers divisions for the widest range of experience: eight levels in Hunt Seat and six in Western. Spots on NCAA teams are most often sought by riders with stellar show résumés, but some schools are receptive to those with little to no competitive mileage.
In competitions sanctioned by IHSA, NCAA and IDA, you ride unfamiliar horses provided primarily by the host school.Another big common denominator is that you are allowed little to no time to practice with or school your mounts before entering a class.
Lori stresses that each venue has its own rules. NCAA, for example, has strict guidelines regarding communication between prospective coaches and students, eligibility rules that involve amateur status and prize money, and other regulations that you must research thoroughly before signing on.
Beyond that, even schools with teams sanctioned by the same entity have vastly different arrangements, requirements and riding and financial-aid opportunities. The search can be complicated, but think of it as a great chance to apply academic research skills to a critical real-world decision.
Be polite and prepared when making in-person, phone or e-mail inquiries of a coach, team member or administrator, but don't be shy. Recruiting new riders is an important component in every school team's ongoing success, and you might be just the student a coach is looking for.
The Internet is a goldmine of collegiate equestrian information. IHSA, NCAA, IDA and ANRC websites (see Websites box) will link you to most of the schools that offer riding programs. Most teams have their own Websites, which promote the benefits of joining their programs and provide varying details of what membership entails.