For those enamored with the bond between horse and human, it’s more than an avocation: It’s a calling. As Sharon Ralls Lemon writes, “The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit, and freedom.” However, this is not a passion easily packed up and moved to a dorm room. So, what is the horse-riding, soon-to-be collegian to do?
According to Randi Heathman, equestrian college adviser and author of Horses for Courses: The Definitive Guidebook for the Prospective College Equestrian, “Students are free to choose their own college equestrian experience. They can compete on an intercollegiate team in a variety of disciplines, major in an equine-related subject,take a horse to college with them, find a local barn to ride at – or some combination of all of those options!”
Heathman further explains, “The main things students should consider when beginning the college search are what their own individual goals are for their riding and how those align with their academic goals, as well as what priorities need to be front and center during that time.” After all, is the goal to compete in high-level varsity competitions at a school like Baylor University or club riding at North Dakota State University or pursuing an equine science degree at the University of Kentucky?
High-Level Varsity Competitions
The National Collegiate Equestrian Association’s (NCEA) varsity events are head-to-head, five-rider team contests where horses are assigned by random draw, and scoring has four areas:
- Hunt seat equitation over fences
- Hunt seat equitation on the flat
- Western horsemanship
- Western reining
Part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), NCEA has over 20 member schools; 4 of these schools won all the overall national titles for more than a decade:
Varsity teams exclusively recruit top-level riders and are part of a school’s athletic department. As NCAA student-athletes, Heathman points out, “Equestrian team members will have other varsity program responsibilities, such as study tables, volunteer and fundraising hours, and required workout times.”
There are more high-level competitions available through the United States Eventing Association (USEA). USEA events are Olympic-style, three-day equestrian triathlons where riders use their own horses as they complete the dressage, cross-country, and show jumping phases. While this has traditionally been an individual sport, USEA added intercollegiate eventing and a team championship for its over 30 member schools.
Club riding is an option available for riders not as invested in competition. Club teams are typically student (and student-run) organizations open to riders with varying levels of experience or those with a desire to learn to ride. Heathman reminds prospective students, “These student organizations typically also have required fundraising events, as well as organizational responsibilities such as arranging team travel, making show entries, and setting up practice times.”
There are opportunities to compete at the club level, typically through the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (ISHA), which has over 400 member schools. Each year, IHSA awards the Collegiate Cup Hunter Seat Team and AQHA Trophy Western Team championships.
IHSA encourages participation by experienced and novice riders alike, with six western and eight English riding competition levels. IHSA schools are commonly smaller than those competing in NCEA or USEA events. Some powerhouse IHSA programs include: Skidmore College, Centenary University. Arizona State University, Stanford University, and Purdue University are larger colleges with strong programs.
If your ultimate goal is an equestrian-related career, there are a variety of entry-level jobs ranging from groom to riding coach to stable manager. More lucrative opportunities, such as veterinarian, geneticist, or feed development specialist are only available via an equine science degree. Some schools, like the University of Findlay, offer different bachelor’s degree options (equestrian studies and equine business management) while others, such as Cornell University and Colorado State University also have masters and doctorate programs. Those interested in veterinarian science should consider the popular programs at Michigan State University or the University of Pennsylvania.
The Best of Both Worlds
The equine path doesn’t have to be an either-or decision. For example, Randolph-Macon College, a private liberal arts college in Ashland, Virginia, has options for students with a variety of equestrian-related goals: non-competitive club riding, ISHA and USEA teams, and a pre-veterinarian degree track. Founded in 1830, Randolph-Macon College prides itself on offering a well-rounded and robust education, built upon undergraduate research, study abroad programs, and internship opportunities.
In the end, just because college is on the horizon, it doesn’t mean you need to choose between school or your love for horses. By identifying personal equestrian goals and then researching the best options available, it’s possible to continue to, in the words of Werner Erhard, “Ride the horse in the direction that it’s going.”