At every level, equestrian sports are costly in both time and money. Those investments can provide nice dividends, however, when it's time for families to tackle the high costs of college. Riding-related scholarships range wildly: from $500 offered by a local organization to "full rides" from schools with National Collegiate Athletic Association equestrian teams. The full rides (full tuition paid scholarships) are generally offered to only a handful of "blue-chip" recruits each year, but the determined college-bound equestrian, usually with his or her parents' help, can find cash for college from a variety of sources.
It should be a given that a family's top priority is to find the right school, regardless of scholarship opportunities, stresses Peter Cashman. He is an executive board member of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, riding director at the West Point Military Academy in West Point, New York, and one who speaks from experience: His oldest daughter competes on a college equestrian team, and his high-school-age daughter is likely on that path. Academics, size, location and ambiance are the key factors in narrowing the school choices, he emphasizes. When considering funds provided by a school, investigate scholarship and financial-aid opportunities only after using these criteria to focus on four or five possibilities.
Good grades are even more important than good riding for admission and scholarship prospects at any school. "No school is going to turn down a good student," Peter notes. "Don't just rely on your riding. Keep your grades up so you can be an asset to that school." Compared to many sports, often the more mainstream sports, equestrian has an advantage in that its young athletes are typically also top students. Coaches and admissions and financial aid personnel often consider an applicant who juggles high academics with a demanding sport like riding to be a cut above the competition because that indicates she can handle the challenges of collegiate success.
High-school riders looking to parlay equestrian accomplishments into help with college costs first need to sort scholarship sources into three broad categories. The first two are the universities themselves: either a school with an NCAA team or those with teams that compete in the IHSA system. Equestrian associations, from the US Equestrian Federation to a local riding club, comprise the third category.
Full Rides: Few and Far Between
Getting recruited for an NCAA equestrian team is the best chance for a substantial scholarship. Per NCAA rules, these teams can offer 15 full rides. These cover tuition, student fees, room, board and books. At present, there are 23 universities with NCAA equestrian teams. A few of them, including Ivy Leaguers Cornell and Brown, do not offer any athletic scholarships, as is the tradition with NCAA Division III schools that generally emphasize academics over athletics. Some of these schools comply with NCAA rules, but their teams compete on the IHSA circuit.
Every NCAA equestrian team distributes its scholarship money differently, and very few riders are offered full athletic scholarships. At Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, equestrian head coach Tana McKay estimates that 90 percent of the 65 young women on her team, including hunt seat and Western riders, receive some athletic scholarship money. The amounts range between 10 and 90 percent of a full ride, roughly $31,000 this year (2010-2011) at Texas A&M. That's for out-of-state students, who comprise the majority of the school's hunt-seat team.
At another point on the NCAA spectrum of possibilities, the riding team at Division II school Seton Hill, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, provides scholarships in the amount of three full rides to the small Catholic liberal arts school. That amounts to roughly $100,000 each year for a team of 15 equestrians. "We try to give everybody some piece of the money," explains graduate assistant and longtime Seton Hill team member Erin Albert. "The more skilled a rider you are, the more money you will be given, but we try to get everybody what they need to be able to come here."