Throwback Thursday: NCEA Competition

I’ve previously mentioned I was a member of my college’s equestrian team; I thought I’d elaborate on it a bit and offer a perspective on NCEA competition. (To read some excellent posts on IHSA experiences, I recommend reading Jess’s take over at The Georgia Horse and Lauren’s post on She Moved To Texas.)

The National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA), also referred to as “varsity equestrian” was formed in 1998 when equestrian competition was recognized as an “emerging sport” by the NCAA. Today, there are 22 colleges and universities that offer equestrian as a varsity sport for women. There are four disciplines recognized in competition: hunter seat equitation on the flat, hunter seat equitation over fences, western horsemanship, and reining.

NCEA competitions are held in a head-to-head format; a rider from each team competes on the same horse which is chosen by random draw. Prior to a rider’s competition round, she is given four minutes to warm up on her horse (five minutes for reining). The rider earning the highest score on that horse wins a point for her team. The team with the most points wins.

I was a member of the University of Tennessee-Martin Skyhawk equestrian team from 2005-2007.

When I started college, I was aware the school had an IHSA team; I was not interested in joining for a variety of reasons. I was not a hunt seat rider. I had heard very negative things about the coaching staff. I’d have to pay fees to show on horses which were not my own, as well as provide my own transportation, lodging, and meals at competitions. My school’s horses were a motley group consisting of student-owned mounts and green broke ‘prospects’. These reports came to me from an older pony club friend who’d been a member of the team for a year before getting frustrated and quitting.

When I started my sophomore year of college, one of my professors mentioned the school was switching the equestrian team to a varsity sport as part of acquiring some Title IX funding. I saw flyers posted for an informational meeting. I decided to attend, as I had yet to bring Moe to Martin and was lacking for social activities.

The meeting was conducted by the team’s newly hired head coach, Meghan Cunningham. She had an impressive resume: she’d coached the Kansas State hunt seat team to two national appearances and competed herself at high level hunter shows. She was very straightforward and explained that during the 2005-2006 season, the team would compete in IHSA competitions while it was waiting for NCEA approval. She told everyone at the meeting that they would need to try out, and she would place riders in a division based on their skill level. Meghan also let us know that several changes would be implemented to the existing program: the old horses belonging to the university would be sold, students’ horses would no longer be boarded at UTM, team members would be required to participate in thrice-weekly practices and strength training sessions, and the university would now provide horses and tack, as well as cover all expenses for shows.

I was intrigued, and lacking any other horse outlet, signed up to try out. I demonstrated my riding ability on the flat and over fences, and was placed in IHSA’s intermediate division. I was told to acquire a navy jacket, a pair of Tailored Sportsmans, and to send my class schedule in so a practice schedule could be worked out.

UTM’s very first NCEA hunt seat team. A very serious bunch.

As a member of the equestrian team, I practiced three times a week and went to 6:30 AM strength training sessions three times a week with the rest of the team. Practices were conducted whenever I had a couple of hours between classes with teammates who had similar schedules. If I missed gym time or practice, I was required to have a note from a doctor or professor exempting me from it; otherwise, I wouldn’t compete at the next show. Practice consisted of an hour of instruction on the flat and/or over fences on a horse assigned by my coach (Meghan). I was expected to arrive before practice to catch my horse, groom it, and tack it up. My appearance was required to be tidy and clean: breeches, tall boots, a tucked-in sleeved shirt, a belt, and a helmet. Practices were educational and often difficult; I distinctly remember a miserable hour spent riding the 18-hand Westfalen gelding without stirrups. My position improved, as did my understanding of how and why hunters are ridden the way they are.

I despised IHSA competitions; I always felt they were terribly unfair. While everyone is riding their horse for the first time (except for the hosting team, in most cases), the horses always varied wildly. Some would be quiet, level-headed animals who were happy enough to canter pleasantly along the rail or hop over fences. Others were nervous, cranky creatures who refused jumps, regularly dropped rails, or kicked at other horses. I found this was the case at every school we where we competed: Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee State, University of the South, Murray State.

UTM’s inaugural NCEA season was 2006-2007. It was a very exciting time: in just a year, the team had purchased new Pessoa saddles, acquired a string of reliable hunters, and recruited some standout freshman riders from the hunter circuit in Florida. We were also thrilled about the prospect of traveling to exotic locations like Nacogdoches, TX and Fresno, CA. I was particularly excited because the team had given me a $500 athletic scholarship.

2007 team (english & western) on the way to compete at Auburn.

After my first NCEA competition, I was feeling very positively about the different format. I felt it was much more fair since a rider from each team rides the same horse. In equitation on the flat, we rode memorized tests, just as a dressage rider would. In equitation over fences, we learned our courses the day we rode them; we walked them with our coach and were permitted to jump a few warm up fences before competing.

Competing at Auburn.

Traveling was not glamorous: we took a charter bus to Alabama and Texas. We stayed in mid-level hotels like Holiday Inn and slept four to a room. We ate breakfast at the hotel and fast food for lunch. Dinner was typically at a restaurant like Texas Roadhouse or Applebee’s; each person had a $15 limit. You were expected to stay in your hotel room and get an appropriate amount of sleep. When we flew to California, we were permitted to check one bag, and had to wear khakis and our official team jackets to the airport.

UTM hosted more competitions than we traveled to. Hosting competitions was even more stressful than traveling to them. The day before the match, we bathed, clipped, pulled manes, cleaned tack, rode horses, sorted programs, moved jumps to the indoor ‘showing’ arena. The day of the match we competed as well as set up jumps, tacked and untacked horses, returned them to their pastures at the end of the day.

Team members were expected to attend athletic department functions. This meant meet-and-greets at booster club events, attending mandatory lectures on alcohol and drug abuse, and attending other teams’ sporting events (e.g. basketball games, volleyball games, baseball games).

We were also required to participate in fundraising efforts like selling ads for our show programs and working the concession stand at the arena during weekend show events.

Our grades were expected to be good. We were expected to let our professors know well in advance that we’d be missing classes due to competitions and provide them with an official letter from the coach. If we had tests or homework, we were to bring them with us to competitions and work on them. We were never to use the team as an excuse for poor grades or incomplete work, nor we were to expect to be treated differently because we were student athletes. (I found most professors treated me worse when they found out I was also an athlete.)

There were a lot of perks to being a member of the team: very regular access to high-quality instruction, opportunities to ride a variety of well-trained horses, special facilities for athletes (e.g. athletic department gym versus student center gym), nutrition consultation, customized strength training, expenses-paid travel and shows, access to athletics department tutoring (offered at times to accommodate athletes’ busy/weird schedules).

There were also a few weird things, like being expected to vote for an increase in the student activities fee which would go toward improving athletics facilities and getting an official letterman jacket.

I left the team after the 2006-2007 season, as I’d moved Moe to Martin, acquired an additional horse, and was focused on riding and competing those two as eventers.

I learned a lot while I was a member of the equestrian team and would recommend it to anyone with riding experience who’s interested in receiving great instruction and opportunities while in college. I’d also recommend looking into it for the scholarships. While NCEA equestrian may not be the right fit for everyone, it was definitely the right fit for me.

For more information, visit www.varsityequestrian.com.

And if you’re interested in becoming a Skyhawk or learning about that program and facility, visit my alma mater at www.utmsports.com.

Rider Fitness

Riding for UTM at Auburn, 2007.

I rode hunt seat in college for my school’s NCAA equestrian team. When I tried out and signed on, I thought my exercise and diet program would stay the same as it had when I evented: pretty much nonexistent. I was not prepared for the rigors of collegiate athletics! Two very early mornings a week, I met my teammates and the school’s athletic trainer in the special athletics gym for weight training. All areas of the body were conditioned-after all, riding is the type of sport where all muscle groups are engaged! Leg press, calf raise, leg curl, bench press, shoulder press, bicep curl, leg raise, back extension- you name it, I was probably doing it at 6 AM Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 2005 until 2007. Of course, I also had riding practice two to three times per week. It always included lots of riding without stirrups, sitting trot, and two-point. I received diet advice from the athletic trainer (which, as far as I can remember, included things like “eat as much salsa as you want, but don’t eat the chips” and “protein, ladies, protein!”). Factor in kickboxing and mixed martial arts two to three times weekly, and you have a relatively lean, extremely strong rider.

Fast forward four years to January 2011. A lot of fast-food, a lack of regular exercise, and far too many chips have packed on the pounds and the muscles have nearly given up. Instead of cranking out fifty push-ups, I struggle to complete five. I haven’t ridden in nearly a year. Riding at a brisk trot causes me to be winded after ten minutes. Two-point feels uncomfortable. Somehow, my calves are too fat for my tall boots. Worst of all, it feels like I don’t know how to ride any more. Everything feels wrong. I know my heels should be down, but they keep creeping up. I’m pinching with my knees, despite my best efforts to use my thighs and calves. Two point feels really bizarre, like I’m rounding my shoulders and roaching my back. I shudder to think of what George Morris would stay about me in Practical Horseman‘s “Jumping Clinic”. I have never had these problems before. I used to be strong, confident, and extremely secure in the saddle. Huge fences never scared me, because I knew I could stay with my horse. I wasn’t a perfect rider, but I knew damn well I could stay aboard Moe while jumping a 3″ oxer bareback. No problem…except now it was.

I’ve been struggling with this out-of-shape feeling all year. It’s been especially noticeable while riding Gina. She’s the sort of horse that you really have to ride. Yesterday was the first time I’ve felt comfortable and confident in the saddle in a long time. It’s one thing to hack on the program horses- they’re bombproof and reliable. Gina is neither of these. Maybe that’s why I feel so accomplished. I rode my horse well. Anne commended me on it. I could feel it. My leg was secure. My heels were down. My upper body was turned toward the next fence. I was riding well. Not spectacularly. Not as well as four years ago. But I felt good. I felt fitter than I have in months.

I attribute the change to eating healthier (limiting caloric intake, adding more protein, eating fast-food less), riding more often (2-3 times per week), and exercising more (weekly- hey, anything is more than nothing!). I feel inspired! I’m going to work hard to get back to a healthier weight and make my body stronger. I owe it to Gina- and myself- to be the best, fittest rider I can be.