Above: A rider walking by the arena at a 2016 St. Lawrence University IHSA Show. Photo by Adam Hill.
By TPH Editor Sissy Wickes
As a Director of the USHJA, a judge, a trainer, and a parent, I am familiar with the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. I know that it was founded by Bob Cacchione (for whom the National High Score IHSA Rider award is named). I know that it boasts a large number of college and university participants, and I know that it is a great option for many equestrians after high school. I know that it is a club sport, not a varsity sport. I know that it was not an option I chose in the Dark Ages when I went to college.
On Sunday, I had my first personal experience with the IHSA as a judge at competition hosted by Towson University in Maryland. It was a picture perfect fall day on the east coast with the sun shining on the browning hills and yellowing trees of eastern Maryland. I pulled into a facility marked Amazing Grace Equestrian Center and wondered what kind of Sunday I was in for.
The driveway wound toward the large barn where I was stopped by friendly young women in jackets with Towson displayed on the front. “I’m the judge,” I said simply. “Oh, yes ma’am,” they said seriously. “You can keep going and park right next to the ring. Some one will meet you there.” I turned the corner past the barn to see a small sand ring surrounded with groups of color -coded riders milling around picnic tables. Each wore a school jacket, some with breeches and boots, some in street clothes. Another Towson jacket walked toward me as I opened the door. “Welcome, Ms. Wickes,” the student said. “Would you like some coffee or breakfast before I show you to your seat?”
For those of us who judge on a regular basis, this was a wonderful start to the work day! Polite, informed, hospitable people and free coffee. Amazing grace for sure.
I was ushered to my seat- a director’s chair- on a platform at one end of the ring and given a schedule. The day consisted of 15 equitation classes- over fences to start, followed by flat. Each class was grouped according to points won or experience, so the ability of the riders was fairly consistent in each class. As I waited, the coaches and players held meetings, followed by a cheer from each team.
Before the first horse entered the ring, Bob Cacchione himself took the microphone, welcoming the teams to the event. His message was one of congratulations to the riders- not for placing in their classes- but for being part of their equestrian teams. “You are part of an association with over 400 colleges and 100,000 riders,” he stated. He invoked the values of inclusion, teamwork, and competition- all for the love of horse sport.
The format of the IHSA competitions consists of each rider randomly drawing a horse for their single class. There was a group of 10-12 horses provided by a few schools that day- from well trained former show ponies to OTTB’s to draft horses to lesson horse soldier types. The riders mount up, adjust their stirrups, and walk to the competition ring. No warm up jumps, no schooling. And, for the judge- no waiting!
The horses vary in strengths and weaknesses. All were in great condition, well turned out, and obviously loved by their respective teams. The riders did their best to figure each ride out and put in their optimal performance. I have never seen that many pairs of perfectly shined boots at any show. Some riders had an easier mount than others, which I tried to take into account with each score. Strategy and horse sense were critical tools as the students navigated the course and the idiosyncrasies of the animal. Every rider received applause; every horse received a pat on the neck. The event was intensely competitive, but emanated with teamwork and sportsmanship.
As I walked to the car at the end of the day, I was thanked by coaches and riders. Girls walked side by side to the cars and busses and I imagined them driving back to their dorms to get started on that week’s homework, putting their riding boots among the detritus of books and clothes in their rooms. It’s good to be twenty years old, it’s good to be a student, and it’s great to have the opportunity to ride on a team.