BY EDITOR SISSY WICKES
Private education is a challenging and changing landscape in the age of skyrocketing tuition and online options. Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, VA found itself in the same difficult conundrum as many single-sex, small private colleges in America. The challenge was to reshape and redirect into a sustainable, innovative educational institution. Sweet Briar has successfully pivoted, even earning a place on US News & World Report’s list of Most Innovative Schools.
Sweet Briar reinforced a strong, diverse curriculum and dramatically reduced the cost of tuition to make the college an excellent, affordable option for women. Founded in 1901, the bucolic setting of the campus is unparalleled, as are the college’s deep roots in equestrian tradition. Accompanying the curricular and tuition innovations is a major shift in equestrian team options for students. Sweet Briar is one of just a few colleges in the United States to offer both an NCEA Equestrian team and an IHSA Equestrian team. While equestrians may not occupy a berth on both teams, there is room for every rider on one roster or the other.
Mimi Wroten, equestrian coach at Sweet Briar, explains the value of supporting both options. “The dual NCAA and IHSA programs are a combination of the best of both worlds for our riders. We can offer competitive opportunities for riders who are just beginning all the way up through experienced accomplished riders. The team experience is a valuable part of Sweet Briar equestrian.” In the 2017-2018 season, Sweet Briar excelled in both formats. Makayla Benjamin, a senior last year, won the Cacchione Cup, the highest award on the IHSA circuit. She also participated in the NCAA Equestrian National Finals in Waco, TX. This season, rules do not permit a rider to participate in both formats, making Benjamin the only rider to achieve this feat.
NCAA Equestrian is offered at 24 schools in the U.S. The program is available to equestrian student-athletes as an opportunity to participate in high-level competition at the collegiate level. NCAA athletes are frequently offered scholarships and may be recruited to participate in this competitive, nationally based program. Many of the best junior riders in the country end up at NCAA schools where equestrian is a varsity sport. Sweet Briar began its NCEA program in 2017 and is currently the only Division III school with a 2018-2019 Hunt Seat Team of six riders. Coach Wroten explains the Division III format. “In Division III NCAA athletics, academics come first. We require a high GPA standard of the student athletes and our professors are sensitive to travel commitments and flexible in their academic demands.” While Sweet Briar is new to the NCEA league, they are improving with every competition. Wroten is optimistic about their future. “We are proving this year that we belong in this program. It is new for us, but we are not far off the mark. I am very proud.”
The Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) is a club sport offered at approximately 350 schools nationally. The IHSA team at Sweet Briar consists of 25 students who participate in Zone 4 competitions and hope to qualify for the IHSA National Finals in Syracuse, NY. The NCAA and IHSA teams form a cohesive entity at Sweet Briar. The riders assist each other at competitions with travel, horse preparation, and cheering. Wroten continues, “It really is a team effort which creates a tight-knit group here. Each rider believes in the value of her participation in the community. Every person supports the other. It is a great experience.”
Sweet Briar offers a robust curriculum, affordable tuition, a campus of unmatched beauty, and a well-rounded experience for its female students. “Sweet Briar’s changes to its curriculum and tuition model were strategic: They were based on the College’s existing areas of excellence to set the institution apart, and also to be relevant for 21st-century women’s leadership,” President Meredith Woo said. “Our institutional innovations are intended to prepare women leaders to innovate their own solutions to global problems.”
With equestrian options that range from students learning to ride to boarding their own horses to a choice of highly competitive teams, Sweet Briar College – where academics and equestrian are the perfect mix – should be on every female junior rider’s list of colleges.