So Much More Than a Diploma: St. Andrews University Equestrian Studies

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BY LAUREN MAULDIN

Picking a college is the first step of adulthood for many, and there are countless factors that go into determining which school is the best fit. But add horses into the mix? Things get even harder.

Still, there are some institutions that maintain excellence through generations. Institutions that know how to create opportunities for their students, and expertly weave riding into a solid education. Since 1961, St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, NC, has been fostering an environment of excellence both in the barn and classroom.

At the forefront of St. Andrews Equestrian Studies is Peggy McElveen, director of the equestrian program, who has been with the university for the last 20 years. Honored with the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association prestigious Pioneer Award in 2012 and Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, she has been involved in collegiate riding since the 1970s. Her decades of experience and commitment to students form the core of St. Andrews’ inclusive, hands-on learning environment.

“We build our program around our students’ goals,” McElveen said. It’s a simple directive that other colleges may tout, but St. Andrews truly sets their students’ welfare, education and lifelong success as the top priorities. “The St. Andrews equestrian staff works tirelessly to give each student the tools they need to succeed—whether in riding competitively, training, teaching, judging, managing a barn or becoming a veterinarian or some other equine professional.” The dedication to students is clear in the numbers with a 14:1 student/faculty ratio and 1:1 academic advising to work through goals and career exploration.

Celebrating over 50 years of horses on campus, the college has been a leader in equestrian studies and show ring performance. St, Andrews has been six-time American National Riding Commission (ANRC) Intercollegiate national champions, and two-time reserve champions. With their IHSA teams, they’ve been national qualifiers 8 times in hunt seat and nine times in western with 2 IHSA national western championships and reserve national championships in the trophy case. Not to be outshone, their dressage team has qualified for IDA nationals 13 times.

Leading the winning ANRC team, as well as the St. Andrews “A” and “C” show teams, is head coach Ashley Duda. Entering her seventh season coaching with the school, Duda mentors young riders who show up with an eager attitude and work ethic. “St. Andrews is unique in that, if you want to learn and are willing to work hard, the instructors and horses are here to help students develop into great horsemen and horsewomen,” she said. The size and scope of the riding program offers essential time in the saddle for students to grow their confidence and develop skills. “Of course academics come first,” she added, “but if the students keep up with their school work, we encourage them to ride as much as possible. We’re lucky to have so many horses to offer our students, and can also offer a great deal of extra lessons.”

Though St. Andrews is a highly competitive school regardless of which riding team or teams a student joins, the leadership prioritizes learning and personal growth above any blue ribbon. “Improvement in riding takes so much hard work,” Duda said. “I have been able to witness many moments when riders feel or accomplish something that, up until that point, had only been talked about. To see that work pay off is such a joy.”

Regardless of how much skill or experience a freshman has, there is a place for them in the barn. St. Andrews has a wide range of riding programs.”. All students have access to IHSA, IDA, and ANRC riding teams, as well as “A” and “C” show teams. Beyond courses or under saddle classes, these various riding teams allow students to be a part of something greater in what is typically an individual sport. St. Andrews was even the host of the 2012 IHSA national championship, something director McElveen shares as one of her proudest moments with the school.

Said McElveen: “Over one hundred St. Andrews Equestrian students, staff, and alumni lived and worked this event for seven days,” held in Raleigh, NC about two hours north of campus. “It was an internship in event management like no other! The dedication, positive attitudes, and endless work ethic demonstrated throughout that week by the St. Andrews crew was phenomenal.” In this way, and many others, riding teams at St. Andrews offer an aspect to equestrian education that traditional universities can’t match.

Of course, showing is secondary to the main component of college—classwork. When it comes to academics, St. Andrews offers a total of 18 majors and 21 minors. Their equine-focused paths include Biology with a specialization in Equine Science, Business Administration with a specialized program of study in Equine Business Management, Business Administration with a specialized program of study in Therapeutic Horsemanship Business Management, and a Therapeutic Horsemanship specific degree. Students enjoy courses ranging from beginning riding instruction to judging.

As any equestrian knows, we learn by doing. It’s one thing to read an article about how to properly wrap a horse, and another thing to do it successfully when you’re balancing fifteen other things at the barn. This is where St. Andrews’ students thrive in the university’s learn by doing approach. Lectures are surrounded by hours working at the barn getting a hands-on education with thoughtful guidance and unrivaled mentorship. And when we say barn, we should really say “stunning equestrian center,” because it’s a lot more than a barn.

“Many mornings I arrive at the farm in the quiet before dawn,” McElveen said. “As I drive down the driveway, my headlights light up the pastures and the barns and I’m filled with awe and wonder. How lucky are we to have this magical place to gather with our students and horses?”

The 300+ acre equestrian center, a jewel of the campus, is home to 125 horses and offers boarding for students to bring their horse to college with them. Its expansive grounds include 4 barns, 2 covered arenas, indoor arena, 3 outdoor riding rings, dressage arena, hunter trial (derby) courses, several riding fields, and extensive turnout. There is space for any kind of equestrian to learn at this top of the line facility.

For students interested in therapeutic riding, St. Andrews has been a leader for access and work in this field.

“St. Andrews was one of the first colleges in the United States that was built to be accessible to people in wheelchairs, and the first U.S. college to offer a degree in Therapeutic Horsemanship,” McElveen said. Their  “Ride-Like-A-Knight” program offers an unparalleled way to learn while helping others. As a PATH International Premier Accredited Center, the Therapeutic Horsemanship Program has been a service to the community since 1996. Helping with therapy for muscular dystrophy/sclerosis, emotional disabilities, spinal cord injuries, Down syndrome, Autism and many others, the program helps individuals between the ages of 5 and 55 from surrounding counties.

Students in the Therapeutic Horsemanship Program learn from a PATH certified Advanced Instructor as well as other members of the equestrian faculty. Faculty ensure their education is well-rounded by having students serve as administrators, volunteer coordinators, program directors, and instructors during their college career. This way, they learn real-world business and management skills that could translate to any company or program.

Whether through study or riding teams, the St. Andrews faculty sets students up for success for a career in the equestrian industry.

“Our program is very helpful in setting students up to go into the professional industry because they can explore different career paths while also obtaining hands on experience in whatever they might choose to do,” Coach Duda shares. No matter which path of study a student selects, each major offers many hands-on classes and off-site internships within the equine industry. The success of graduates through the St. Andrews program is a point of pride for Director McElveen; “Our graduates have careers in riding, teaching, coaching, training, grooming, barn management, retail business, and equine appraisal as well as professional careers as equine specialist attorneys or veterinarians. The significant amount of hands-on experience our students receive helps prepare them for success,” she states.

St. Andrews alum Samantha Cram McDermott knows exactly how this diverse, hands-on learning can open up doors for a career in the industry. Graduating in 2013 with a Biology degree with a focus on Equine Science, McDermott worked for Kent Farrington for a year and a half after graduation. Then she went out on her own for the next three years, running her business in NC with IEA and circuit show teams before moving to Kentucky with her husband and starting an office position with Split Rock Jumping Tour, where she has been for the past four years. It’s a dream resume for any equestrian, and she credits the success to a solid work ethic and a St. Andrews education.

“With St. Andrews you have opportunities that I don’t think would be possible at other schools,” McDermott said. She and her twin sister, who also attended the university, spent countless hours scrubbing water buckets and generally doing whatever was needed at the barn. “Once they realize you’re there to learn and be engaged, the possibilities are endless. We were given so many opportunities to show and rode all the time,” she said. McDermott also did a pre-vet internship, and worked as horse-show chair to organize the show horses and volunteers for IHSA shows. “You get a little bit of everything, if you want it. You always have somebody around that’s done it before and is willing to teach you.”

Christina Kalinski has also built a diverse career in the equine industry in large part due to her St. Andrews education. Working as a professional rider and trainer on the “A” circuit before her current position with Taylor, Harris Insurance Services, Kalinski credits her time at college for a lot more than a start in the industry. “St. Andrews prepared me for life,” she said. “The close relationships I forged with my teachers, trainers, and teammates made my college experience really personal. On all levels—inside and out of the show ring—this group of people watched me succeed and fail. They helped strengthen my weakness, but also guided me in the direction of my strengths. Ultimately, the trajectory of my adult life boils down to the confidence and accountability I found from the mentors I met in college.”

Both McDermott and Kalinski agree on the most important aspect of their time at St. Andrews. It wasn’t the riding wins or fancy facility that left the biggest impression, but the tight-knit community. “It’s not just the camaraderie of the team, but the whole school. There’s just this bubble of happiness,” McDermott said.

“I met the greatest friends of my life at St. Andrews,” Kalinski added. “We worked together and sometimes against each other, but at the end of the day we learned how to live together and grow together. These friends still hold me accountable today, and I find myself extremely lucky to have them in my life.” For these alumni, college was a feeling of being on a team where everyone worked together for the same goal. 

It’s a mentality that doesn’t stop once the degrees have been handed out. “When you’re getting out of school, they can help you go in the specific direction you’re interested in,” McDermott said. Opening doors for their students is something that makes a St. Andrews education worth way more than a diploma. Many of the alumni in the industry offer summer jobs and internships to St. Andrews students. Joining this special university means a place on a lifelong team and built-in community for what can be a challenging industry to work in.

“Many riders say they want to be successful, but then they lack the dedication to work hard,” Coach Duda said. “Riding is a difficult art that few can master. Dedication to learning this art will allow a collegiate rider to accomplish their goals.”

For young equestrians looking for mentors that will train them to be their best and take advantage of incredible opportunities, an education at St. Andrews is exceptional. It’s  the college experience for driven equestrians ready to put in the work to make their dreams come true.

To learn more about the  St. Andrews University Equestrian studies, visit sa.edu/equestrian.


Photos by Giana Terranova, Rooney Coffman & Tyler Graham


About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.

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