By Marcia Hester
It seems like yesterday that I was watching my daughter Lauren with pigtails and ribbons canter around the pony ring at horse shows across the country. Of course, the ponies lead to children’s hunters, which lead to junior hunters. Next on the agenda is equitation, a discipline which requires a special horse. Equitation is the backbone for jumpers and suddenly Lauren was a junior in high school and preparing for SAT and ACT tests. I am sure many of you have experienced this same transition. A question my husband and I often asked was: where does this lead our young daughter? There are many different answers to this question. NCAA Equestrian teams are among the answers. Lauren signed up in the NCAA clearing house so that her high school transcripts and testing would all be sent to the NCAA for eligibility. This is one of the simplest steps of the process. Lauren thought that a being part of an equestrian team might be an interesting way to attend college. She had listed universities that had teams in one column and others without teams in another. Lauren thought she would wait and see what the future would bring. We were delighted to hear from several schools who were interested in her as a potential team member.
The recruiting process is very exciting. The team coach invites the rider to attend a special weekend at the school. The university provides plane fare, hotel costs and transportation. It is an opportunity to tour the campus and talk to academic advisors, athletic trainers, attend a special athletic event and meet other potential team members. It can be a bit hectic working all this into an already full schedule of school, horse shows, and extracurricular activities. Lauren, however, somehow managed to find more hours in every day.
Lauren visited Southern Methodist University in Dallas when she was a freshman in high school. Her sister, Hilary, was applying to colleges and wanted to see the school. Early on Lauren felt SMU was her university of choice. She was even more enthused when SMU offered her a full athletic scholarship. Lauren’s orientation was stimulating and informative. We learned that there are many wonderful benefits available to a student athlete. The athletes have special tutoring, priority scheduling for classes, books, tuition, medical care and sports training, and also a built-in network of friends.
Most of the girls who compete in college sports have learned great time management skills. Lauren was accustomed to managing school, riding, volunteer work and competitions, so adding college classes, study, team workouts and practice was not a burden. She felt prepared for this. The team concept was one of the most rewarding parts of her experience. In NCAA competition, 3-6 riders compete head to head with 3-6 riders from an opposing school. The riders each draw a horse and then the other team draws its horses. They ride the same horse over the same course. An equivalent process holds true for the individual flat pattern that each must perform. The team usually travels with 4-6 riders for fences and 4-6 riders for the flat. The same rider may ride in both flat and fences. This is up to the coach’s judgment.
The horses are often challenging and the riders are only given 4 minutes and 4 jumps for a warm up. We have seen a few very wild rides! There aren’t too many advantages for either team except that the home team usually owns the horses, so they are familiar with individual animals. SMU’s team, under the direction of its wonderful new coach Ashley Schaefer, is now ready to become competitive in the conference. Steve Orsini is the new director of Athletics at SMU and is 100% behind the team. Currently, SMU is examining the introduction of new horses for their program. The riding program has recently moved to a beautiful new facility just 10 minutes from campus. SMU is welcoming seven new recruits, four from the west coast: Mallory Olson, Jennifer Weeks, Jordan Petersen and Lauren Michaels; and three from the east: Emily Gardner, Lauren Needham and Claire Wenholz. Coach Ashley Shaefer was at Showpark this past weekend in order to see some of her “new girls” in action.
The best part of NCAA competition is being part of a team. Although each rider strives to do well individually, the results of the competition are based on the overall team’s performance. Therefore, it is truly a sport where everyone participates in some way. The girls who aren’t competing on “game day” will have responsibilities such as warming up the horses, tacking and grooming, and of course cheering on their team members. As a group effort, team riding can provide an experience with a very different emphasis from the individual intensity of our local and national horse shows.