College Equestrian Teams: What’s The Best Fit For You? NCAA vs. IHSA

By Annie Birmingham

The end of May marks a new adventure for high school students across America: it is officially time to begin contemplating your college options. This task is particularly tedious for young equestrians, who often balance training and showing schedules in addition to their search for perspective colleges and the riding opportunities those colleges offer, so if you don`t have time for studying and riding on the horse our professional writers from can help you with writing your paper, dissertations in your future college, so you will have time to balance between boring studying and exciting riding. I had the opportunity to interview two young riders who have “survived” this process, and they have insight that I hope will help to answer some of your questions!

Grace Hickey
Grace Hickey is a finance major at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Originally from Bay Shore, New York, Grace has trained with Stephanie Proffe of FTF Equine Services LLC. for the past 7 years; competing at all levels from schooling shows to the AA Circuit with ribbons from HITS Saugerties, HITS Ocala, The Garden State Horse Show, The Hampton Classic, and many more. Grace began attending James Madison University (JMU) as a freshman in the fall of 2016 and joined the schools IHSA (Intercollegiate Horse Show Association) team shortly after.

Grace Hickey riding Iamwhatiam, aka “Toby.” Photo Courtesy of Shannon Bower

Kennedy Knapic
Kennedy Knapic is a junior at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. Originally from Smithtown, New York, Kennedy rides with James Benedetto out of Northport, New York as well as her family’s own Knapic Stables. Kennedy has ridden for almost all of her life, with multiple Low Junior Jumper Classics at shows like HITS Saugerties, and in her final junior year qualified for all major equitation finals, including a Top 25 finish at Medal Finals on her children’s hunter turned big equitation horse, Zedulon. Kennedy was recruited for the Auburn University NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Equestrian Team in 2014, and began attending the university in the fall of 2015.

Kennedy Knapic riding Duell. Photo Courtesy of Mackenzie Michaels

1) What is the difference between IHSA and NCAA?
The most notable difference between IHSA and NCAA is the format of the horse shows. Both organizations offer a total of 4 events as well as both Western and English teams, and all competitors draw horses randomly. The format differs in that NCAA is a more “head to head” competition.
“In the NCAA format there are 5 horses to draw from and 5 riders riding to represent their school. This means that Rider from School A and Rider from School B would both be riding the same horse. They also draw their order (which girl warms up and rides the horse in competition first). If School A has 3 girls riding first in Event 1, they will have 2 girls riding first in Event 2. This lets the judge give scores for each ride that let them score two different riders handling the same challenges a horse presents to them over the same course or pattern,” says Knapic.
“IHSA format is more similar to a regular horse show with over fences classes and normal flat classes,” says Hickey. Multiple teams from each region will compete in an array of divisions, such as walk-trot, walk-trot-canter, novice, intermediate, and open. Hickey explains, “One rider in each class for each team is the designated point rider and the points they get (7 for first, 5 for second, 3, 4, 2, 1) will go towards the team’s total score at that competition. At the end of the day, the team with the highest score wins.” Additionally, riders can compete individually for points to try to qualify for regionals, and from there riders with enough points can attend Zones and then Nationals. Jump heights at IHSA shows are typically not as high as those at NCAA competitions and riders receive no warm-up at all before entering the show ring. Hickey also explains that many IHSA teams are even considered varsity teams and therefore receive more funding and support from the college.


2) Which organization recruits more of the “Top Level” riders?
NCAA is known to recruit more “top level riders”, considering they are offered at larger schools such as Stanford University, Auburn University, University of Georgia, and more.
“The NCAA’s ability to give out scholarships gives more incentive for top equestrians to go to college, therefore allowing them to recruit top levels of riders who may have had the opportunity to forgo college altogether to pursue professional careers after their junior years. It helps those riders with top talent have the resources to get an education, however in return you have to commit yourself to the school and the program. This only allows the recruitment of riders who have competed successfully at a certain level, which is often the big equitation,” Knapic explains.
Hickey also notes, however, that IHSA has also recruited some big-name riders (Whitney Roper and Emily Williams have won IHSA Finals in the past). Sometimes the decision on where to go just comes down to the amount of time the two teams require. “There is only one lesson required a week [for IHSA] versus practice 5-6 days a week for the NCAA. [And so] the people who are looking to participate in NCAA and IHSA usually are very different in their goals and the time they have available to commit to an extra curricular,” which is why many equestrians who plan on continuing to show on the circuit in addition to a school team choose to ride IHSA.


3) What quality are the horses your respective program?
While the quality of horses varies by school, both girls agree that the horses they get to ride are all of a high caliber. The James Madison University IHSA team competes out of Jason Berry Stables in Verona, Virginia; which is a show barn that houses the program. Because of this, the team practices on “excellent horses,” because many of the team’s horses were competitive on the circuit before being donated to the program. At shows the team travels to, many of the horses at the other teams’ locations are of similar caliber because so many local teams are labeled as “varsity.”
Knapic feels the same about the horses in the NCAA program, stating that the team is “very blessed to have talented horses to work with,” because, “a lot of the horses we get are [in the program] because they were too difficult to compete on or have a quirky disposition, [however] given the talent of our riders and the program the horses are in they usually acclimate extremely well. We often receive horses that are getting older and have competed extensively and successfully throughout the circuit but are reaching a point in life where they need to jump smaller jumps, and so our program comes in handy to give those horses a purpose that keeps them fit and comfortable. Other times we get horses from people that would prefer them to go to the school and in return receive a tax write off, instead of the trouble that goes into advertising and selling them, or because they have a quality that makes them more difficult for sale.”.


4) What was your background in riding before joining your college team?
Both riders grew up around horses, and so continuing to be competitive in college was a no-brainer.
Grace Hickey began riding when she was 6, and later joined the FTF Equine Services, LLC. team and has ridden there with Stephanie Proffe for the last 7 years. She has competed at the 2’6” to 3’ level at shows such as HITS Saugerties and Ocala, the Hampton Classic, the Garden State Horse Show, and more. Hickey says, “Throughout my riding career, I have ridden many different types of horses and I enjoy learning how to quickly adapt to each one and tending to their specific needs while under saddle.”
Kennedy Knapic has ridden since she was 4 years old, and started to become more competitive around age 13. “I was lucky to be able to take my children’s hunter, Zedulon, and move up to the Big Equitation, qualifying for all the major finals and highlighting my time in the big equitation finishing in the Top 25 at Medal Finals in 2014 (my first and only year in the big eq). From there, I competed in the low junior jumpers and won a couple of classics at HITS Saugerties. Between my winters at Stonyhill Equestrian Center, my horses spent the summers in my backyard barn where I, with the help of my sister and parents, cared for our horses. We do everything from scheduling hay deliveries to mucking to riding. Because of this, I was really well rounded in not only the competition aspect, but the horse management aspect of being an equestrian.


5) Did the level of the riding team affect your college decision? If so, how?
Hickey and Knapic differ on their approaches regarding the riding teams at the colleges they were considering.
Hickey states, “during my college search, my main focus was to find a school where I would feel comfortable and happy while away from home. My other focus was to find a school where there was an excellent and competitive environment for me to excel academically. The idea was that if there was a riding team at the schools I was interested in, that’s great, but my main focus was academics first.”
On the other hand, Knapic says that, “the level of riding really did affect my decision. I only wanted to go to school as far away from Auburn if I was on the team, because being a ‘barn rat’ I didn’t know what I would do or how I would cope not having my horses and barn to get away to, especially since I was used to seeing my horses from my bedroom window. I was ready to take on the commitment that came with the NCAA program and was looking for the challenge. I also knew that for me, riding once or twice a week wasn’t going to be enough to keep me happy, and that I wanted to maintain a certain level of riding and fitness that the program would require of me.”.


6) How does your school handle the tryout process?
At James Madison, as with most other IHSA teams, tryouts are held two weeks after the first semester begins. Then, every rider trying out is assigned a random horse at the barn and has to complete one over fences course and a flat class of about 4-5 people. Hickey refers to the tryout process as, “simple and straightforward, because as a freshman trying out, there’s so much stuff going on [those first few weeks] that something super complicated might have actually melted my brain. The tryouts are laid back and definitely encouraging because we want people to come try out for the team.”
On the other hand, NCAA teams do not even hold tryouts, they only recruit riders. This means that every year, it is generally determined by the November before the school year begins which equestrians will be joining the school’s team, although occasionally they will add a few more riders at the last minute. “Our coaches often go to the big horse shows and finals like Devon, Maclay Finals and Medal Finals to watch large quantities of equitation riders and their performances, and then reach out to them afterwards depending on their age.” Additionally, many schools with NCAA teams offer camps and clinics for riders not attending the bigger finals. “This allows the coaches to watch you ride in an environment based on the format [of NCAA] because you are not riding your own horse, and they can get more of a feel of your talent as a rider.”.


7) Would you recommend riding on a college team to young riders in the process of selecting a college?
Both girls recommend joining a riding team in college, regardless of the level. Hickey reflects, “going into college I was apprehensive about joining the team because of the commitment and the amount of work I would have to put into it, but I can’t imagine myself without it now. Since joining the team, girls I never knew before became my best friends because of our love and passion for riding. I definitely recommend joining any type of team for a social aspect and to be surrounded by people with similar interests as you!”
Knapic agrees, stating “YES. A thousand times yes I recommend this program,” however, she warns that she would only recommend the program to young riders who truly understand that this is an NCAA team. This is because joining an NCAA riding team entails early morning workouts, GPA’s that must be maintained, and practices for multiple hours every day. “You will learn a lot about time management between the schedules we have for equestrian and for academics, but it’s worth every minute of it. It doesn’t matter if we’re at practice, workouts at 5:45 AM, or on a bus traveling to other schools meets; you can bet we’re having the greatest time and making memories like no other. Isn’t that what college is about anyway?”


Overall, whether it’s IHSA or NCAA, both Grace Hickey and Kennedy Knapic can agree that riding on a college team is extremely beneficial to becoming not just a more well-rounded equestrian but person as well. Hopefully their insight is helpful to any young equestrian making college decisions!

About the Author: Annie Birmingham is an 18 year old equestrian from Long Island, New York. A freshman at Long Island University studying equine management, Annie can usually be found spending time at the barn and grooming at horse shows up and down the East Coast.

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