As with most NCAA teams, scholarship amounts are defined as a percentage of the entire cost of attending the school, rather than a fixed dollar amount. Team members who maintain their grades, perform well for the team and follow school rules can generally be confident in keeping their scholarship money for all four years of their education. An injured rider can usually take advantage of a "medical red shirt" year that allows her to stay on the team even if she can't ride.
To prevent friction within the team, most coaches and scholarship recipients don't divulge how much money the athletic department doles out to whom. And the amount of scholarship money available varies from year to year. The more seniors with scholarships who graduate each spring, the more money there is to offer new team members that fall.
Reserve champion in the hunt-seat division at the 2010 NCAA Varsity Equestrian Championships, Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, is one of the NCAA network's most proactive recruiters. Of the team's 38 young women for the 2010-2011 season, 24 (63 percent), received athletic scholarships. Thanks to the aforementioned correlation between good grades and good riding, several receive the equivalent of a full ride when their athletic scholarships are combined with academic scholarships.
For prospective student athletes, there is an "absolute correlation" between performance on the show circuit and how generous a scholarship they will be offered, reports Auburn head coach Greg Williams. Success as a catch rider is a big plus, as the collegiate riding format requires competing on horses owned by the host school. Once they are on the team, performance, leadership and other factors can alter individual scholarships for the following year.
Show-ring success as a Junior rider is not the only way to get NCAA scholarship money, however. Coaches report cases of "walk-on" team members whose performance and role on the team earned them scholarship money in subsequent years. Some schools have summer riding camps at which talented riders of modest means can impress the coaches.
The perks of NCAA team membership are becoming better known, particularly at the elite ranks of the hunter/jumper world. When former top Junior rider Maggie McAlary received recruiting calls in July 2007, she was not planning to continue riding in college, and schools with teams active on the NCAA circuit were not on her radar screen. That all changed with an invitation for an "official visit" to Auburn University. That fall, she was flown to Auburn from her home in New Hampshire and treated to three days on campus. She was hosted by equestrian team riders, taken to a school football game and, in general, given the red-carpet tour of the academic, equestrian and social scenes.
The experience radically altered Maggie's college plans. Now a junior at Auburn, she remains thrilled with her decision and has encouraged younger friends to follow in her footsteps—to Auburn and on the NCAA equestrian path in general. Two of her friends at trainer Andre Dignelli's Heritage Farm in Katonah, New York, are now on the Auburn team.
Getting a very substantial portion of Auburn's $32,000 annual out-of-state costs covered by the school is only one of many perks of riding for an NCAA team. "It's really a big deal to be a school athlete," Maggie summarizes. She lives in student-athlete housing, gets early class registration to make sure her schedule fits with early-morning conditioning workouts and afternoon riding practice, and has access to tutoring.
Although NCAA equestrian has been stuck in "emerging sport" status with just 23 participating schools for some time, the programs at several of these universities are thriving. Competition is fierce, and recruiting efforts are on par with those used in higher-profile sports. Five-time NCAA Varsity Equestrian Championships overall winner, University of Georgia in Athens, and other top contenders, including Texas A&M, University of South Carolina in Columbia, and Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, are among the most active recruiters. They have feelers out all year and scouts at the major equitation finals.
In addition to accumulating a great riding and academic résumé, equestrians targeting an NCAA scholarship have lots of homework to do. NCAA has myriad rules regarding eligibility and protocol for communication between coaches and prospective student athletes. The website www.varsityequestrian.com is the best place to start this assignment, which savvy students get a jump on during their freshman year of high school.
Schools with IHSA Teams
Universities with teams that compete outside of the NCAA league comprise a much larger pool of possibilities for riding in college. IHSA currently has more than 370 schools. Per the format of the competition, these teams welcome riders of all experience levels. Unlike NCAA in which equestrian is strictly a women's sport, many IHSA squads welcome men.
"A lot of them don't offer traditional athletic scholarships like NCAA," Peter explains. "But a lot offer many ways to help. Whether it's called ‘scholarships,' ‘financial aid' or ‘grants,' it can add up."
His oldest daughter, Randi, is a senior at Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey, which tied for second in last spring's IHSA National Championships. A working-student program there helps defray her college bills, as did her receipt of $1,000 from the Professional Horsemen's Association and the $1,800 Emily Hilscher Memorial Scholarship. The latter is one of 32 Intercollegiate Equestrian Foundation awards, through which the IHSA last year divvied up $39,600 in scholarship funds.
It's a mistake to look only for riding-related scholarships, urges Beth Beukema, president of the Intercollegiate Dressage Association and director of equine studies at Johnson & Wales University in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. "You should really be looking at any scholarships the school has to offer." At Johnson & Wales, for example, any student who was an honor student in high school gets a $10,000 scholarship. "All of our scholarships are purely academic," she explains. "We are looking for the best students who also ride."
Completing a Federal Student Aid application (www.fafsa.ed.gov) is the first step for anyone seeking scholarships, grants or financial aid, Beukema notes. "Even if you don't think you will be eligible, every school will require that."
Described by Newsweek magazine as one of the 25 "New Ivies," 2010 IHSA national hunt seat champion Skidmore College has a team of 30 riders. Head coach Cindy Ford estimates that between 40 and 50 percent of them receive some form of financial aid from the school.
Equestrian is one of several sports taken very seriously by the Saratoga Springs, New York, school. As such, the team typically has access to two or three substantial scholarships every year. These are earmarked for Skidmore athletic coaches who have their eyes on an impact player and want to make it more feasible and/or attractive for the student to attend. "This would be an exceptional individual who has a very strong possibility of making the riding team," Cindy explains.
"If there's a good rider who I want on my team, I will work with financial aid and admissions and the family to see what help he or she is eligible for."