Sweet Briar College and the Transformative Experience of Riding

Written by Sissy Wickes

Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, VA, has had more than its share of trials in the past eighteen months. Slated to close its doors in 2015, the small female liberal arts college experienced a Phoenix- like ascension from the depths of incapacitation to its current state of health. When Sweet Briar’s Board of Directors announced the closure of the school, a group of alumnae, students, faculty, professional dissertation editors, and benefactors united to save the school. From this groundswell of support, Sweet Briar reversed the decision of the Board and resurrected itself to continue its tradition of academic and extracurricular excellence. Today, the college is healthy and growing.

maddy-lee-2Sweet Briar, established in 1901, has a deep seeded equestrian tradition. Set on 3,250 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the campus is in the heart of horse country. With state of the art indoor and outdoor facilities, Sweet Briar offers an enviable equestrian program. For senior, Madalyn Lee, participation in the equestrian program at Sweet Briar was a personally transformative experience. Lee, an engineering major, was drawn to Sweet Briar by the unique Engineering Program and the small professor- to- student ratio. Having ridden as a child, Lee had competed on a local level with no aspirations to participate in upper level horse shows.

While at Sweet Briar, Lee decided ride recreationally and take advantage of the excellent school horses and beautiful trails around campus. Once Lee became involved with the program, her confidence grew and she auditioned for and made the IHSA Equestrian Team. While navigating the demands of an engineering major and math minor, Lee managed to ride three days per week, often at 7AM before her academic day began. Despite the long hours of her busy athletic and academic program, she loved being part of the equestrian team. The camaraderie of horse and rider, the challenge of competition, the sisterhood of teammates- all proved to be an invaluable part of the Sweet Briar experience. As Lee explains, “Bonding is going to the barn when it is 10 degrees below zero and the horse is the only warm thing. There is an invisible language between us; communication that nobody sees.”

maddy-lee-1Madalyn Lee has found a confidence and self-reliance in riding that extends into her academic endeavors. Her engineering work is now driven by a desire to find creative solutions and think more critically. “I’ve taken away a real sense of confidence from the team, in my riding abilities and general being. I have competed before, as I have been riding since I was very little. I surprised myself by the competitive nature I possess… The confidence I gained from riding here at SBC seeped into my academic life. I noticed that I doubted myself less and dared to explore the world around me. I used this confidence to go after a job with the Department of Defense under the U.S. Navy. I have been working for the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River since my sophomore year.”

Attempting to find a way to combine her love of riding with engineering, Lee’s senior capstone project involves designing and building riding sensors to detect imbalance in the rider’s position. Called “Ride Balanced,” this training aid will identify the rider’s heel/toe angle and the openness of the shoulders, two common riding position mistakes, and alert the rider to improper form.

For Sweet Briar College’s Madalyn Lee, the building blocks of success were constructed from her equestrian and academic experiences. The discipline and confidence gained from her life in riding have bled into academic life and will follow her forward to the professional world that awaits her.

About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.

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