BY WALTER ROBB
Bridgewater College used to feel like home.
I’m a junior here, and heavily involved in the equestrian program. Being able to learn to ride horses at school has been a dream of mine for a long time. I have always been around horses, but I never felt that I had what it took to learn how to ride one. Never once did I consider learning how. When I began my college search and found that some colleges offered equestrian programs, I felt for the first time as though my dream of riding was attainable.
The program at Bridgewater College seemed especially welcoming, even on my first visit there. Not only was the equestrian center beautiful, but the staff was incredibly helpful in answering any questions that I had. It was an affordable and amazing program, and it still is today. I knew that it was for me. Since coming to Bridgewater, I have gone from an inexperienced rider who knew nothing about riding to someone who is wholeheartedly devoted to this program. Not only have I had the opportunity to compete with both the IHSA and IDA teams, I am also a member of the executive board for the equestrian club. While there have been some struggles, I’ve never doubted that Bridgewater was the right decision for me…until this year.
Our school is currently undergoing a Strategic Resource Allocation process, meaning that the administration has hired an outside consultant to help them decide how to best use their time and money going forward. On the last day of fall break, the task force released their recommendations to students and staff. Among those recommendations were proposals to sell the Bridgewater College Equestrian Center and downsize our program to 8-12 elite-level female riders on an NCEA team—something the school currently does not, nor has ever, offered.
The administration has not been making this news any easier to hear. On the October 13the town hall event that allowed for students to question the recommendations, administration responses were discouraging at best. They were very unclear about plans for the program. Very few of our submitted questions were answered. Many of us felt shot down, silenced, and ignored.
Without clear answers from the college, it’s hard to understand where these recommendations are coming from. Instead, it appears as though they wish to turn the current program into something that focuses only on competing, and shuns the accessibility and opportunities for learning that so many of us who compete at lower levels value so highly.
The equestrian program is one of the biggest draws to this school. It is the reason why I, and many others, have chosen to attend. Many students are now considering leaving the college if this decision is passed—a choice that was seemingly encouraged by our college president in the town hall when he said, “If you are passionate about one of the programs that’s leaving, then there might well be another institution that’s a better fit for you.”
For the college president to look at us as collateral damage, and even go as far as to suggest that those of us who dislike the recommendations should find another school to attend, breaks my heart. We all learn from a young age that life isn’t supposed to be fair, but this isn’t just unfair at this point. It’s wrong. It’s wrong that they are taking this experience away from current and future students, and it’s wrong that they’re doing it in a way that makes us feel dismissed and put down.
While we all understand that the college has a responsibility to its finances, we also understand that they have a responsibility to their students, alumni, staff, and other stakeholders who generate those finances and make Bridgewater College the institution that it is. Without any clear answers from the administration, it’s hard to believe that the actual students were factored into this decision.
This program has given me everything that I am today when it comes to my riding. It has made my dreams come true. I never thought I would see a day in which I would be able to go out into an arena and walk out with a blue ribbon in my hand, and last weekend I was able to do just that. I’ve had the opportunity to be a member of both the IHSA and IDA teams and those are both wonderful experiences that I would never take back. IDA especially holds a special place in my heart, as it was the team where I really began to see my progress and feel like an accomplished rider.
Along with my growth as a rider, I’ve also grown as a person. Bridgewater Equestrian has given me connections and experiences that I would have never gotten to have, and I would not have achieved my dream with anyone else beside me. The staff and other students enrolled in this program are like my family. I have laughed and lost with them, and cried and celebrated with them. I have learned so many new skills and lessons that I never would have learned on my own. In the two full years that I have had the chance to be a participant in this program, it has changed my life completely for the better.
However, Bridgewater College administration is aiming to reform the equestrian program into something that it is not. Their recommendations would mean that riders like me, who are just starting out their career in riding, and men at any level of riding would no longer be allowed to participate in the equestrian program. The opportunities currently offered in the program to any rider—regardless of gender or experience level—would no longer be available, and the opportunity that the administration is offering as replacement is not consistent with the goals and strengths of our program. It’s not even clear that we are willing or able to fill an NCEA team with our current set of riders. NCEA riders compete at a very high level, which requires an intense commitment. Bridgewater students came to a Division III school to be students first, and we are in this program to learn how to compete at such a level.
It’s hard to feel valued at a school that has consistently failed to take an interest in what many of us consider to be their biggest draw. I personally feel blindsided, as I had planned on being on both the IHSA and IDA teams next year and finishing off my senior year in the riding program strong. Now, they’re threatening to take it all away.
The beautiful thing about the Bridgewater equestrian program is that every rider is as valuable as the others. Riders like me, who have never set their foot in a stirrup before they begin lessons at the BCEC, matter just as much as riders who have been competing for their whole lives. Everybody has an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to be with horses. The school’s most recent actions have shown me that they don’t value me or the opportunities that the equestrian program offers. They’ve shown me that they look down on learning and prioritize competition. They’ve shown me that I don’t matter to them. I hope that they prove me wrong, so that I can once again be proud to call Bridgewater College my home.
An Update from Equestrian Club President, Mary Monaco:
Since this piece was written, the Bridgewater College Board of Trustees have voted to approve the SRA recommendations and move forward with selling the Bridgewater College Equestrian Center and downsizing to a single NCEA team. We are disappointed in the decision, but not defeated by it. In a meeting with him, President Bushman opened the door for the equestrian program to have a voice in the implementation process. We plan to use that voice to continue to advocate for riding opportunities for all equestrians at Bridgewater College, whether or not they can compete as varsity athletes. For information on how to help, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Walter Robb attends Bridgewater College as a Sociology major with a minor in Crime and Justice. He is a member of the IHSA team, and has previously competed with the IDA team. He is originally from Virginia Beach, VA and you can find him on Instagram as @wdrnarf.