Learn about the benefits joining an interscholastic equestrian team, and see how horseback riding is rising in popularity as a school sport.

By Pamela Mansfield

Equestrian sports are gradually gaining in recognition at the high school level, opening the door for new opportunities for today's young riders. Traditionally, equestrian programs have been an attraction for students seeking the ideal private school education. Now, a few public high schools from New Hampshire to Oregon are starting to offer riding as a varsity sport. In these schools, equestrian team competition results are being posted on bulletin boards, and their trophies stand proudly alongside those of football and basketball teams.

Riding on a high school team doesn't require affiliation with a school, however. Upper and middle school students can still enjoy the fun and challenge of training and competing on an equestrian team under the professional guidance of an equestrian training center. As an added bonus, being on teams that follow the same format as the intercollegiate riding programs gives students valuable experience and helps them catch the attention of college coaches. The opportunity to win college scholarships is the next step toward a bright future, all thanks to a new movement afoot to elevate equestrian sports for adolescents and teens - not for just an exclusive population, but for anyone with the interest and ability, even if they don't own a horse.

High school equestrian teams have the potential to make a positive impact on the sport of horseback riding in a multitude of disciplines. Also, they recently got a nod from the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), who introduced their High School Equestrian Athlete program that offers emblems and pins for equestrian athletes in grades 9-12. "You don't have to be a record-setting quarterback, point guard or track star to letter in high school sports anymore. The USEF is writing a new chapter in the recognition of high school sports - one that honors equestrian athletes," a press release states.

Teams Help Promote the Sport

Taking the reins for national oversight and support of equestrian opportunities at the middle and high school levels is the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA), established in 2002 as an affiliate of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA). The IEA promotes the equestrian as an athlete and provides students from ages 11 to 19, in both private and public schools, the opportunity to learn equestrian sports and to participate in organized competitive events throughout 12 zones in the U.S.

Recently appointed as executive director of the IEA, Roxane Lawrence has seen the association grow from just 60 members to over 3,000 members and about 300 teams in the U.S. Lawrence was teaching students enrolled in Andrews Osborne Academy's world-class equestrian program in Ohio when the school initiated the IEA program, with the support of the executive director of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA), Bob Cacchione. Lawrence explains, "Initial plans were formed for developing the IEA and reaching out to students with the goal of teaching them to ride under the same format as the collegiate teams." In competitions, the young athletes become accustomed to riding many different types of horses through a draw, or catch-riding system.

Through a well-designed program, the IEA funnels a new crop of riders to the collegiate teams, riders who might not have had the opportunity otherwise, and has awarded scholarships to a number of students. "The growth of the sport at the bottom is of serious concern now," says Lawrence. "There's not enough depth in the lower and middle class. The economy is taking a flip and people want to be involved in the sport but can't do it in the traditional way. We offer in the IEA a chance to compete at quality shows with an equitable competition format for riders who range from the beginner and all the way up." At the present time, about 75% of the members ride hunter seat, but western riding is gaining in popularity, and saddleseat and dressage are being considered for future programs.

Along the way, young riders have the experience of a lifetime, training as a team and enjoying a well-organized competition circuit for a nominal fee. For each competition, the host barn or team supplies the horses and tack. The emphasis for the rider is totally on the sport and ability to ride, not ownership of a horse that might present an advantage due to its abilities. Horse and rider have little time to get acquainted, but the skills the rider develops in this fashion speak for themselves. Each barn in the IEA program is required to host competitions, and teams from several barns in each region compete to earn points, which may qualify them for national finals.

Phenomenal Growth, Invaluable Experience

In Zone 1, for example, barns, private high schools, and colleges host IEA-recognized competitions. Zone 1 Finals are held at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where Assistant Director and Head IEA Coach James F. Morris has seen phenomenal growth and interest in the IEA. He coaches a team himself, based out of a community riding program. "We started with a team of five members; now we have thirty just within the past three years. Zone 1 started with a few teams and it has quadrupled to more than fifty teams within the past year - twenty new teams have been added this season. A combination of prep schools and now private riding facilities are starting to field teams," Morris explains.

The experience is "invaluable," he claims, for students headed to colleges with exceptional equestrian facilities, such as Mount Holyoke, which has won several IHSA championships. Other governing organizations include the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and American National Riding Commission (ANRC). "IHSA started the concept of a draw format where you didn't have to own a horse to compete. In the NCAA, equestrian sports are considered an "emerging sport," and they are very strict in their requirements.

Riding on an IEA team not only helps with gaining the necessary experience, it means students get the chance to "ride in front of a lot of different coaches and when it comes time to apply to a college, the student might already have been seen by one of the coaches and doesn't even know it," says Morris. "The IEA is a great tool in collegiate recruiting for both coach and rider."

A Leg Up on College Applications

Beckett Run Equestrian Center in Hamilton, Ohio, which established the Equestrian Talent Search, is helping with the college application process by educating both parents and students as they prepare their search for the right college. Through intensive weekend clinics, young equestrian athletes are offered the chance to learn from and ride for college coaches. Together with their parents, they are helped in refining their goals and narrowing down their options for continuing with their riding in college. Riders complete a biography before the clinic and indicate their target schools where they plan to apply. The weekend clinic includes thorough instruction on the college admissions process, financial aid, and sports psychology. A full day of riding and instruction with the college coach includes invaluable feedback and written notes that are added to their biography, which can be used as part of the college application. Upcoming Equestrian Talent Searches will be held at four locations this year: Chatham Hall School and Randolph College in Virginia; Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts; and at Centenary College in New Jersey.

Run by Jim and Gwen Arrigon, who once coached at Miami University, the Beckett Run program has been a model for training winning high school teams and outstanding individual riders who have gone on to ride on college teams. The Beckett Run Equestrian Team was the top-ranked high school equestrian team in the nation in the 2008-2009 season.

"Talent searches begin when the students are juniors in high school," says Head Coach Tana MacKay at Texas A&M University. Throughout the competition year, "coaches are traveling and recruiting and looking for really talented riders. When the students are seniors, we make official visits to see if they are a good fit for our equestrian team." "One of the first steps is filling out an application and sending in a video or DVD showing the rider's ability," says Kayla Elmenhorst, Assistant Coach at Oklahoma State University. Texas A&M and Oklahoma State are two of the 23 colleges with NCAA equestrian programs. NCAA requires 40 colleges to have teams in order to recognize it as a championship level sport.

Even if riding on a college team is not a goal for some riders, the benefits of high school equestrian teams are that they "create great friendships, and the riders have a lot of fun," says Morris. "Students learn a team sport; they have leadership opportunities and responsibilities that go hand in hand with riding, developing a well-rounded student-athlete."

"Anything we can do to recognize and validate what they do as riders is a wonderful thing," says Lawrence. "We would like to continue to pressure schools themselves to offer a letterman program, and we need parental pressure to get schools to offer letterman programs.

"Initially, the IEA wanted each school to endorse its own team, but the minute (school officials) hear the word 'horse,' the red flag of liability goes up. It's very hard to get school administrators to understand equestrian sports." As the IEA continues to grow, the hope is that it will become well-known for its scholarship opportunities and helping with college entrances, and that it will influence more high schools to endorse the sport.

State-wide Teams Help Integrate Equestrian Sports in the Schools

At least two states have gone out on their own to build organizations that have made it possible for young riders to participate on high school teams. Since 2005, the New Hampshire High School Equestrian Teams, a state-wide organization with three districts, has worked diligently to bring equestrian sports to the schools, and has succeeded in helping the equestrian athlete to be recognized on par with varsity sports. As of this writing, NHHSET has 16 school teams - 13 are public schools.

At Kearsarge Regional High School, Persis Durling is a math teacher by day and NHHSET advisor and treasurer afternoons and weekends. Serving seven towns just north of Concord, the public high school has an alpine ski team as well as lacrosse and football. Now those students who were already dividing their time between school and their horses can participate in a team sport that may finally be better understood by their non-riding classmates. Those without horses are getting the opportunity to train and ride on the team. And even classmates who don't ride, but are interested in the sport, can join in by being "spirit" members, allowing them to take part by helping out with the horses and assisting with the day-long competitions that take them to different barns across the state. It's a commitment and a team effort that allows them to improve their riding skills and enjoy the sport they love, all as part of a recognized school program.

"The NHHSET is modeled after the Oregon High School Equestrian Teams, which has a much larger program with about twelve hundred kids involved," Durling says, explaining that the NHHSET was the dream of Kim Fortune of Webster, New Hampshire. "She heard about the Oregon program and she is a big proponent of kids being acknowledged for equestrian athletics; so she went to Oregon and learned as much as she could and came back with a rule book in hand. The program was modified to fit our area better - in Oregon they have more rodeo style events. We have some things they don't have, and they have some that we don't have." The extensive NHHSET competition venue includes equitation, dressage, gaming, barrel racing, a walk-trot program, a walk-trot-canter program, hunter suitability, western suitability, trail equitation, in-hand showing and more.

The riders pay a flat fee to participate in the competition season, which runs from winter to spring. Teams ride together once a week to practice, and clinics and competitions are held at host barns in the state. While some private high schools, such as Proctor Academy, had already embraced equestrian sports, both public and private schools are beginning to recognize them, especially since there is no cost or liability to the school. The NHHSET is proving a level of commitment to this sport, and they are bringing more young riders together to enjoy a team sport while doing what they already were doing individually. "As we become more recognized, I think it will be an even bigger draw," says Durling. "We are promoting team work as well as individual effort."

"NHHSET is a non-profit [501(c)] organization that is run completely by volunteers," explains Alyson Miller, chairman of NHHSET and advisor for the Nashua Equestrian Team. "Because of our extremely dedicated volunteers, and the strong support of local barns, we've been able to keep costs remarkably low for the high school students who participate. Last year, as the recession was putting a damper on other horse programs, we were forced to create a new district in order to accommodate the sudden influx of kids joining our program. Every spring, we host three shows in each district, followed by a state show for those competitors who qualified in their classes."

Bringing it to the high schools has many advantages for the riders who participate, not the least of which is being recognized by their peers. "Having a couple of massive trophies with horses on them in the trophy case of Nashua High School North is a source of extreme pride for me," says Miller.


Equestrian Scholarships

Equestrians already know that being on the back of a horse can take you places, but planning ahead while in high school, and participating in equestrian teams can even give you a ride to college. While scholarship opportunities differ for each college or university, several equestrian organizations also offer scholarships based on riding ability and/or academic merit.

The Interscholastic Equestrian Association awards cash scholarships at its National finals each year, and in 2010 will give out $10,000. "In each of the 'individual' qualifying classes, the top placing senior receives a scholarship," IEA Executive Director Roxane Lawrence states. "They don't have to be the winner of the class, just the highest placing 12th grade rider. They do have to be pinned within the top eight. The scholarships are awarded in larger increments to the upper level riders and decrease in value. Last year, we gave away $8,000. The biggest individual award was $1,000 to the highest placing senior in the Varsity Open Championship, and the beginner (lowest level) riders were winning $400."

As part of the exciting IEA high school team program, Beckett Run Equestrian Center holds Equestrian Talent Searches at host facilities throughout the year, guiding students as they prepare for college. Several of their top riders have obtained scholarships to a number of schools.

The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) encompasses 29 regions in nine zones with more than 300 member colleges in 45 states and in Canada. There are two IHSA scholarship funds: The Intercollegiate Equestrian Foundation offers scholarships each year based on need, suitability, and dedication to the sport. The Jon Conyers Memorial Scholarship is awarded to an undergraduate competing member of the IHSA. "Here, as in most IHSA schools, scholarships are awarded on a Merit Base, meaning they are mostly granted for academic purposes," says James F. Morris, Assistant Director of the Mount Holyoke Equestrian Team.

The NCAA offers 15 equestrian scholarships. There are 23 colleges offering the NCAA sport of equestrian, considered an emerging sport, but it is only available to female riders.

The United States Pony Club also offers a scholarship for its members. Any equestrian organization on the local level may also be a resource for supporting scholarships based on participation in equestrian sports.

photo of 2009 IEA Leading Rider

Photo: Ron Schwane
2009 IEA Leading Rider, Allison Joyce (Rising Star Equestrian Team, Massachusetts), pictured with Carly O'Hara of Ohio and Brittlan Wall of Georgia

photo of Beckett Run Equestrian Team

Photo: Ron Schwane
Being on teams that follow the same format as the intercollegiate riding programs gives students valuable experience and helps them catch the attention of college coaches.

photo of horse and ride going over a jump

Photo: Ron Schwane
For each competition, the rider competes on a horse supplied by the host barn or team. Horse and rider have little time to get acquainted, but the skills the rider develops in this fashion speak for themselves.

photo of Mount Holyoke College team

Photo Courtesy Mount Holyoke College
One of the benefits of joining a high school equestrian team is the great friendships that are created.