Some details have emerged regarding the NCEA situation I posted about yesterday. If you’re interested, here are the links:

AQHA’s Response to NCEA Equestrian Developments
NCAA Women’s Athletics Recommends to Remove Equestrian as Sport
NCEA Update about Future of NCAA Equestrian

It sounds as if the NCAA is recommending the removal of equestrian as a sport because it has not achieved championship status within the 10 year window granted to emerging sports. Equestrian has actually had 12 years to accomplish this; it was granted an extension in 2012. To achieve championship status, a sport must have 40 ‘sponsorships’- that is, schools that sponsor a team. Currently, equestrian has 22 sponsorships.

In September, the NCEA provided the NCAA with a strategic plan to increase sponsorships. Just a few days ago, the NCAA advised that equestrian be removed as a sport. There aren’t many insights into why the NCAA feels this way, other than the lack of sponsorships. However, this tidbit from the NCEA’s report could be indicative of at least one reason equestrian hasn’t caught on:

“We also will work to educate schools interested in sponsoring equestrian about the financial reasonability of adding the sport. There are misperceptions about the costs of adding equestrian that the NCEA feels we can address.”

Maybe the NCEA is concerned that schools think equestrian is too expensive; I wonder if it’s the opposite- schools are upset once they realize the true cost of supporting a large equestrian program.

I’m very interested to see how this all pans out!

The death of NCAA equestrian

A friend who received her doctorate from Kansas State posted an article from that school’s newspaper onto my alma mater’s equestrian team’s Facebook page this morning: Equestrian program being discontinued at K-State, women’s soccer coming in 2016-2017.

I’ve written before about my experience as a member of the University of Tennessee-Martin’s varsity equestrian team. While I have never been a serious hunt seat rider and felt a little out of place on the team, I did feel like it was a valuable experience. I received excellent instruction, rode a wide variety of horses, and received a small scholarship which helped me pay for my college education.

The article from K-State’s The Collegian reports that “due to a recommendation from the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics, K-State Athletics will part ways with its equestrian program after next season’s scheduled competition.” The article also states “the Committee on Women’s Athletics saw a shortage of sponsorships for equestrian at all three levels of NCAA competition, leading to the recommendation that all universities re-examine their use of the sport.”

While I couldn’t find the report from The Committee on Women’s Athletics the article references, I was able to find some data from the NCAA itself on the state of equestrian sport by digging into a report on available on their website: NCAA Sports Sponsorship & Participation Rates Report 1981-1982 – 2007-2008 (PDF).

Created with data from NCAA Sports Sponsorship & Participation Rates Report

As you can see, the overall number of student athletes involved in equestrian has been slowly increasing over the years. The number of teams (or “sponsorships”- school sponsored teams) has followed a similar trend, with 45 teams fielded in the 2007-2008 season. A more recent report from the NCAA, Women’s Sports Inventory, places the number of total equestrian athletes at 1,543 in 2013.

How do these numbers compare to other NCAA sports? The total number of athletes participating in equestrian is similar to the total number of athletes participating in women’s rifle and women’s water polo. Equestrian has more athletes than women’s rugby, women’s skiing, women’s rifle, and women’s squash. 
However, the difference between those sports and equestrian comes down to budget. The Women’s Sports Inventory report puts a Division I school’s average budget for equestrian at $921,000. Those same schools, on average, generate only $83,000 in revenue from equestrian. The discrepancy between budget and revenue is even wider at Division II and Division III schools. It’s easy to see why the NCAA feels that equestrian is no longer a worthwhile pursuit; it’s certainly not making any money for the NCAA. It won’t, when the majority of schools sponsoring an equestrian team are small Division III schools. At a large university like Oklahoma State, the football and basketball programs generate enough revenue to cover the budget deficit for its equestrian team. At schools like tiny liberal arts college Seton Hill University, equestrian’s deficit must be made up in other ways.
Equestrian sports are an expensive pursuit. I know this. You know this. I have to wonder if the schools who eagerly added equestrian teams in the last decade knew this. The NCEA website is a little misleading- or maybe they haven’t read the Women’s Sports Inventory report. On their Prospective Universities page, they optimistically tout equestrian as “among the least expensive sports at $3-7,000 per student athlete” and state “total operating expenses range from $100,000-450,000”. The NCEA is also very positive about acquiring funds, horses, and facilities, as evidenced by some of their cheerful statements:

  • “The horse industry has over a $112 billion dollar economic impact each year with over 7 million Americans involved. Many programs have found new sponsorships with feed, animal health products, apparel and trailer companies.”
  • “Major networks already carry equestrian activities (NBC, ESPN, Outdoor Life Network, TVG, and College Sports TV). The Varsity National Championship has been televised on both CSTV and OLN.”
  • “In most cases, programs have met their horse needs through individual donations to the animal science, athletic or university foundation and/or from a pre-existing club team. Some programs choose to lease or borrow horses instead of owning.”
  • “Institutions with existing equine and/or animal science departments will typically already have facilities on campus.”
  • “Many programs have tapped into the local horse community to help offset cost. Oklahoma State University was able to acquire sponsorship for a horse trailer and jumps while securing deals with western wear stores for uniforms. You will soon discover there is an untapped market and unique interest group available to you.”
Most of these statements are specious at best. While it’s true NBC does broadcast major equestrian events, it’s not as if Rolex (or even the Olympics!) is getting primetime coverage. And of course people will want to donate horses to a program…horses that are too old, too lame, or too crazy for their owners to ride or sell! 
I know that UT-Martin added equestrian because it needed another sport to offer women. I’m sure other universities did the same. However, if a Big 12 powerhouse like Kansas State isn’t willing to field a team, who is? Kansas State has a robust athletics department which generates plenty of revenue for the school. Their equestrian team has regularly been invited to compete at the NCEA National Championship, and is currently ranked 4th in the NCEA rankings. They’re successful and competitive. But it isn’t enough.
I question the value of including equestrian in collegiate athletics. I know many of you have had positive experiences as members of IHSA and NCEA teams, and some of you may have even begun riding through those programs or been able to ride when you otherwise couldn’t have afforded to. But for riders who are already riding and competing by time they go to college, how many are truly interested in competing for their school instead of pursuing their own showing goals? How many interested non-riders will try out for their school’s team instead of finding a stable for lessons? Are collegiate equestrian programs truly building interest and giving opportunities? 
For me, participation on the equestrian team was stepping stone. I had yet to bring my horse to college and wanted to ride. I knew I was competent enough to make the team. But my goal was never to become a great and wonderful hunter rider. Once Moe made it to Martin, I spent most of my free time keeping him and another gelding fit for eventing. I left the team after two seasons because my interest waned after I was able to get back to the discipline I truly loved. 
I’m curious to know what your thoughts are, fellow riders and readers. 

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.