Picking the Best College Riding Program for You

Photo courtesy of Erin Prutow


Prior to opening my own equine law practice in Southern California, I spent four incredible years showing on the Oklahoma State NCEA Equestrian Team. Like many high school equestrians, the decision of whether to go after an NCEA team spot or ride for an IHSA team was difficult. I was fortunate enough to receive an athletic and academic scholarship to OSU, and after signing my letter of intent, I never looked back. Whether you seek an athletic scholarship, wish to use your riding experience to help set you apart in the college admissions pool, or decide to ride for a club team program, the following overview of college equestrian programs can help organize your search for the perfect school.

In addition to riding, it’s important to trim your school list to include:

  1. Equestrian Programs you’re interested in
  2. Schools that have solid departments for your potential majors
  3. Schools located in areas of the country that you wish to explore and could live in for years

The decision can be made easier if you use a funnel system to create a hierarchy of schools to visit based on how each school ranks after considering the aforementioned criteria.

In ranking your equestrian programs, consider whether you want to ride within the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) or the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA), which is an NCAA program.

Photo courtesy of Erin Prutow

The NCEA provides scholarships and other opportunities for its athletes. Disciplines include Hunter Seat and Western and with four events: Hunt Seat Equitation Over Fences, Hunt Seat Equitation on the Flat, Western Horsemanship and Western Reining. Competitions test five riders from each event in head-to-head competitions. Each rider receives a score, and the rider with the highest score receives one point for her team. The NCEA National Championship is held each spring after regional championships. For more information visit: http://www.collegiateequestrian.com/

The ISHA is a bigger organization than the NCEA, meaning there are more schools that compete in it and within each program, more riding opportunities for more riders. The IHSA philosophy states that any college student (male or female) should be able to have the opportunity to participate in horse shows, regardless of their financial status or riding level. Riders can compete in Hunter Seat Over Fences, On the Flat, Western Horsemanship and Reining. There are eight levels within the Hunter Seat division including: Walk-trot, Walk-trot-canter, Novice, Intermediate and Open on the Flat and Novice, Intermediate and Open Over Fences. In Western competition there are six levels: Beginner, Intermediate, Novice, Advanced and Open Horsemanship and Open Reining. For more information visit:  Intercollegiate Horse Show Association.

Photo courtesy of Erin Prutow

Should you choose to ride for an NCEA or an IHSA team, be prepared for an incredibly rewarding and time-intensive commitment. Unlike riding as a junior at home, you are now committing your time to your teammates as well as to your craft as an equestrian. You will be responsible for showing up to workouts, practices and team functions ready and willing to put in the extra mile for your team. You will spend countless hours throughout college—traveling, taking care of the horses, cleaning the barn, practicing and working out—it is essential for incoming student-athletes to prepare for this commitment and get excited about it too. Your teammates will quickly become your family at school. You will travel through campus in a herd dressed in team colors, smelling faintly of sawdust and dry shampoo—it is an incredibly rewarding part of your college experience should you choose to pursue it!

In many cases, high school students choose a university without a varsity equestrian team but still want to ride. Many universities have competitive equestrian club teams that compete and practice within the IHSA format in the same way as the varsity ISHA teams. However, club teams are not considered varsity sports and are therefore not funded by the university. These clubs rely on dues and fundraising to lesson, get to horse shows and take care of the team horses. A club equestrian team is a good option for riders who want to participate in other sports or activities on campus.  

Photo courtesy of Erin Prutow

If NCEA is your end-goal, it is important for college equestrian prospects to find a way to get on the college coaches radar.  The most successful candidates are proactive and contact coaches directly either in person at the major final shows or via phone/text/email. With the exception of questionnaires, camp information, NCAA materials and nonathletic publications, coaches cannot contact equestrian prospects prior to September 1 of the student’s junior year of high school. As a result, coaches rely on prospects to be proactive and contact them early regarding their interest including submitting prospective student-athlete questionnaires, registering for camps, sending their videos, equestrian resumes and academic information. Videos should demonstrate your abilities in your prospective discipline on a variety of horse personality types.

For any aspiring college athlete, it’s important to remember that the greatest catalyst in helping to get recruited is the student athlete him or herself. Colleges are looking for well-adjusted, community-minded and academically motivated students for their teams. Pure riding experience will not carry you through college, just like for many of us, riding will not carry us through life. If I could leave all readers with one piece of advice about college riding it would be to remember you are a “student-athlete,” meaning you are a student first and a rider second. Find what classes peak your interests, start to build a life for yourself that you are excited about outside of the arena and use your passion for riding to fuel your creativity and imagination in creating your future.

Author Erin Prutow, Esq. is an equine law attorney who assists horse owners with their businesses, estate planning and employment law needs. She graduated summa cum laude from Oklahoma State University where she was captain of the nationally ranked equestrian team. She received her juris doctorate from Emory University School of Law before relocating to Southern California. A Pennsylvania native, she has been training and showing in the hunters and jumpers her entire life, most recently enjoying her saint of an equitation horse, competing in the AAs.