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. 

Author: Stephanie

Equestrian, amateur cook, people person.

6 thoughts on “The death of NCAA equestrian”

  1. This strikes close to home as KSU is my alma mater. I am so incredibly disappointed with the schools inability to continue to house a very talented team. Although I did not ride for the school, I feel like we have always had a strong background in equestrian athletics and because of Title 9 they balanced out the other male sports. Now the NCAA will no long allow the team to represent one of the 16 teams we must have to stay in our division 1. I hate that it's happening, but don't know how else K-State was to act. I have to wonder now if other Big 12 teams will follow suit, as I think there are only 2 others? It's going to be interesting to watch.

    1. Exactly- if the NCAA won't allow equestrian to count as a Title 9 sport any more, why would any school want to house an expensive, small sport? (Even if they are extremely talented and competitive team like K-State's!) I wasn't able to find a source for athletic director's statement about it being 'projected' to count toward the minimum requirement; maybe it was in the mysterious Committee on Women's Athletics report?

      I was glad to see KSU was planning to honor the scholarships and coach's contract, though.

  2. My experience was with IHSA as well and it gave me the opportunity to get back into riding after a hiatus in high school! My group wasn't as tight knit as it sounds like other groups were but it was still a great experience!

  3. My only experience with NCAA-level equestrian sports is as a spectator… but some of the rules don't seem to mesh with reality. Many athletes on NCAA Western teams compete at Quarter Horse Congress with their own personal horses on their own dime. Yet they have to give back ALL prizes [including their trophy!] because of NCAA rules.

    That doesn't sit well with me.

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