BY TPH EDITOR SISSY WICKES
There is familiarity and comfort in routine, a sense of knowing what to expect and how to field it. The flow of a horse show is something I feel in my sleep, an innate rhythm after having participated in them for so many years. Last fall, I had a whole new day at a horse show with the NCAA format. Familiar yet foreign, routine yet remarkable, it was a wonderful experience.
I have been following the NCAA Equestrian saga, from the promise of its birth as an Emerging Sport in 1998 to the disappointment of sputtering growth – culminating in the 2014 recommendation by the Committee on Women’s Athletics to drop it as a sport. It sadly seemed that the Title IX boost to collegiate equestrian sport had not been fully ignited.
Enter a reorganization of the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) Board of Directors, the hiring of an Executive Director and her decision to establish a National Advisory Board (NAB) for the NCEA, and NCAA Equestrian was reborn. NCEA is the governing body dedicated to the advancement of equestrian sport. Along with the NCAA, it oversees and promotes growth of the sport while under the Emerging Sport umbrella. Due to reorganization, revitalization, and renewed growth, Equestrian was approved by that same Committee on Women’s Sports, and the D-1 and D-2 Councils of the NCAA in 2016.
The NCEA competition format was like nothing I had previously experienced. The day begins with a coaches’ meeting between the coaches from both teams and the judges. Each school has an all female Hunt Seat team and a Western team. Each team has coaches and assistant coaches, clothing emblazoned with their school’s logo – all well prepped, polite, and ready to compete. The atmosphere is professional and competitive. There is a standardized run- through of the rules and schedule. Questions are asked and answered; the show day begins.
First for Hunt Seat is the Jumping Phase. In my experience, there were twelve riders competing, six from each team. They had drawn horses prior to the event. Some of the home team riders may have ridden the horses they drew, while the away team riders had not- truly a catch riding test of horsemanship. Six horses would jump the same course twice, once with a member of each team. This is the head-to-head format that characterizes NCEA competition. Six different horses jump the course, there is a break, and the same six horses jump again with a rider from the other team. Same horse, same jumps, different rider: how could the field be more level?
The Flat Phase follows the jumping phase. Again, head to head format in a dressage ring with a flat test that has been given to the teams and the judge ahead of time. This phase is the most foreign to the hunter/jumper judges. Nervous about it, I studied the flat pattern and videos on judging provided by the NCEA website. More than a few times, I ran through the routine, anxiously familiarizing myself. The last thing I wanted to do was make a green mistake.
Prior to the start of the class, several test rides are performed without the scores counting toward the team totals. This enables the judge to get comfortable with both the pattern and the scribes sitting next to them reading it. The judge scores the test rides with the coaches watching and listening to the scores. The coaches may ask about the scoring in terms of what the judge likes or dislikes in execution of the test.
I survived my first NCEA judging experience and was thrilled with the level of riding displayed by the young women. Well coached in both phases, well versed in riding a foreign horse, and well turned out- the riders were very impressive in performance and appearance. The years of training in equitation, flat work, and course execution as junior riders clearly made sense in this format. NCAA Equestrian is the perfectly logical next step in many young women’s riding careers.
The most exciting aspect is that the best horse did not win, the best ride did. The rider who best negotiated the course or pattern on a specific horse on that particular day was rewarded with a win in her head-to-head contest. Her point is added to the aggregate of her team to determine the winner of the match. There is no “I” in team.
A crowd of parents, teammates, and friends cheering, screaming encouragement, school chants, high fives – I could have been at a lacrosse game. What a fabulous experience!
Currently, there are 24 schools reporting a varsity team into the NCAA with 18 of them competing in the NCEA format, and there are many more schools organizing teams on Division I, II, and III levels. If growth continues as anticipated, there will be over 40 participating schools by 2020. Imagine that every single rider competing at USEF Medal Finals could be offered a place on an NCAA Equestrian team. Imagine that the financial and personal sacrifices inherent in a junior rider’s career could open educational doors. Imagine that the NCEA is making this a reality.