The NCAA varsity equestrian format is designed as "head-to-head." So if Texas Christian University (TCU) is riding against the University of Georgia, one rider from TCU and one rider from Georgia will compete separately on the same horse. Four such pairs of opposing riders compete in each event (using a different horse for each head-to-head pair), and a judge numerically scores every rider. The rider from each competing pair who earns the highest raw score gains one point for her team--which means four points is the maximum a school might score in each event. If the score is tied (2-2) at the end of an event, the raw scores determine the winner.
There are two events for both disciplines: Western includes horsemanship and reining while hunt seat includes equitation over fences and equitation on the flat. Judging is based 100 percent on the performances of the individual riders, not on the horses. This policy places all of the riders on a level playing field.
At each competition, the hosting college provides the horses. Before the competition, coaches from each team draw for the horses on which their riders will compete. Each rider has exactly four minutes to warm up on the horse she's drawn, just before she goes into the arena. Most riders agree that this extremely short "get-acquainted" time is the most challenging aspect of varsity equestrian! Obviously, the home team has the advantage in that they know the horses, but every school takes equal turns at hosting competitions. Also, the hosting coaches are required to provide the visiting coaches with a list of helpful specifics on each horse.
Up to eight Western team members from each school can be chosen to ride at a competition, although many coaches use several of the same athletes for both horsemanship and reining. In very rare circumstances, an exceptionally versatile rider might compete for her team in Western and hunt seat. Also, most teams designate one or two alternate riders for each competition. Because the 18 varsity equestrian teams in the NCAA Division I category are spread out all across the U.S., most colleges fly their riders to competitions to minimize time away from academic classes.
Spectators accustomed to watching regular equestrian competitions will see some similarities at varsity events. In reining, explains TCU Coach Gary Reynolds, "the judges mark the runs using the industry-standard reining scoring system. In horsemanship, the patterns have from 7-9 maneuvers, and each maneuver is scored from plus 1-1/2 to minus 1-1/2. It's kind of the ultimate catch-ride situation: 'Here's your horse, go ride your way through it.' Yes, there's some level of home-team advantage, although we sometimes find that at home, you tend to either over-ride or under-ride your horses because you do know them so well. When you play at an away game, you generally have no pre-conceived notions. You just get on and go show them, feeling your way through it."
All of varsity equestrian's Western judges are required to be rated by the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA). "We also like to have judges who represent both the AQHA and National Reining Horse Association," says Reynolds. "The format is as fair as it can possibly be to test horsemanship and equitation skills. Virtually every school has riders on their teams who are nationally renowned, world champions or even multiple world champions. That raises the level of the sport, and it means you've got be really tough in the competitions--you've got to ride every time like it's a world-championship event."
For more on the TCU team, read "The Little Team that Could" in the December 2008 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.