Grier School: A True Equestrian Dynasty

Photo by Winslow Photography

By Piper Klemm and Tyler Bui

When we think about dynastic teams dominating sport for extended periods of time, we almost never think about equestrians. There are a couple—four-time US Olympian McLain Ward in the Grand Prix of The Devon Horse Show, which he won for the 12th time in 2022; Margie Engle has ten American Grand Prix Rider of the Year titles; and Captain Canada Ian Miller holds the record of most Olympic Games appearance by any athlete in any sport at 10 Olympics (1972-2012), as well as being a 12-time winner of the Canadian Show Jumping Championship. 

And now we have Grier School. 

Grier School is an all-girls private boarding school located in Birmingham, PA. The team has never lost an Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) National Final Championship in Dressage—literally undefeated back to back wins. Grier’s Middle School Western Team, coached by head western coach Christopher McElyea, earned the National Title in 2022, the fifth year in a row of earning the tricolor. Grier is the only team out of 1,452 IEA teams in the country to qualify as a full team plus individuals in all three disciplines.

Not only did they qualify, Grier School provided horses for hunt seat, dressage, and western competition, amassing 25 class wins with riders from all over the country. Grier came home with both the Most Valuable Player (MVP) Fences Horse on the hunt seat side and the APHA Most Valuable Paint Horse on the western side. 

Individual titles and winners are never at the group’s expense or an exclusionary experience. Grier School also won the Team Spirit Award, repeating their win from the last IEA National Championships in Harrisburg, PA. 

“One thing I absolutely love about our program is that anybody who wants to try can ride,” says Director of Riding Chrystal Wood, the driving force behind this juggernaut. “We have our recreational program, which is open to absolutely anyone. It’s for riders who maybe have never ridden a horse before—riders who just want to give it a try and see if it’s something that they’re interested in. It really opens up that opportunity for girls who are at any level.”

Founded in 1853, Grier School currently has about 250 students who are offered over 20 honors programs and classes, 22 AP courses, and 24 different on-campus clubs. 

With both day and boarding students, Grier School offers an inclusive and diverse learning environment for all students, with 40% of the student body made up of students from over 30 countries worldwide. For students looking for an exceptionally vigorous curriculum, Grier offers their Elite Scholars Program, with college-level courses approved by the College Board. 

“Grier School has been in the business of educating women for nearly 170 years, which is longer than just about any other educational institution in the United States. We’re really proud of that fact,” says Geoffrey Grier, the school’s director. “We are a direct, real, proponent of educational opportunities and have been for over 170 years. There is no question that in an all-girls setting, students learn more, females learn more—they are more involved, they are prone to go onto more leadership positions.”

In addition to its superior academic program, Grier School is known for its three signature programs: riding, dance, and arts, both performing and visual. 

The riding school at Grier offers several programs for students to achieve their personal riding goals. Students in the program will ride anywhere from two to five days a week, receiving instruction from one of six professionals in both English and Western. One of the Grier Riding School instructors, Kerry Kocher, is also a nationally sought-after USEF licensed official with a R Judging Card in Hunters and Jumpers, as well as Course Designer. 

“The riding program is a few steps away from the main building,” says Wood. “There are girls who spend time at the barn from the minute after the bell rings to dinnertime. There’s other girls who just come up and ride. Students can really make it into something where they can learn and grow and or they could just ride for fun. I think it’s really great that students have the ability to be able to do as much or as little as they want.”

The facilities are set on 300 acres with six horse barns, four outdoor arenas, trails, two indoor arenas, one fitted with a heated mezzanine for spectators, heated offices, and a lounge. The “show indoor” is 250’ x 125’. 

There are over 50 horses, ranging from the beginner level up to the 1.20 m jumpers and 3’6” hunters and equitation. Students are able, but not required, to bring their personal horses, in addition to riding and showing the horses owned by Grier School. The school additionally has a seven-horse and a two-horse trailer which allows them to transport their horses to horse shows in order to keep costs as minimal as possible for riders. Students learn to and care for their own horses, with a strong emphasis on horsemanship throughout the program. 

Grier School offers both a Varsity and JV riding program. Students in the Varsity program ride six days a week and participate in four riding lessons per week. They have a free-riding option, which is a supervised riding period on Fridays and Saturdays. The JV program is more tailored to students who want to participate in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA). 

Led by Wood, students compete in shows ranging from schooling to A circuit shows. Students have the opportunity to compete in shows such as The Devon Horse Show, Pony Finals, the National Horse Show, IEA Nationals, AQHA shows, Congress, NAYC for Dressage, and AHA Nationals. 

“We do at least one or two hunter jumper rated shows a month,  at least one dressage show per month, and we try to also go to a schooling show,” says Wood. “I think it’s really important to the program that we offer a little bit of everything. Schooling shows really help build riders’ confidence and give them a lot of purpose. We try to really offer the best of both worlds and not just for the students who are showing in the premier horse shows.”

Many riders who graduate from Grier School go off to ride as a student-athlete in Division I,II, and III programs. Additionally, many compete in IHSA and IDA programs across the United States and become professionals in the industry, located worldwide from the US to Europe and the Middle East.  

“As far as IEA, Grier School has been undefeated since the inception of IEA Dressage,” says Wood. “In this last National Final, we qualified 24 riders in 53 classes across all three disciplines. Grier is the only team out of 1,452 IEA teams in the country to qualify as a full team plus individuals in all three disciplines.”

“I can’t emphasize enough how much I believe that this is a dynastic program, as you would find from the Boston Celtics of the 1950s or the Women’s Olympic Basketball Team—Chrystal’s dressage team has never lost a national championship,” says Geoffrey Grier. “The legacy and the tradition of winning here is unrivaled. It’s all due to Chrystal’s hard work. She has created a true dynasty in the United States, as far as riding programs go.”

For Wood, Grier School means so much more than just a school or career. As a child, Wood remembers driving by campus and dreaming about what it would be like to attend. Eventually, she found herself as a teacher at Grier which has now come full circle. 

“When I think of Grier, I think of a place that girls can call home, a place they can come back anytime and feel welcomed,” says Wood. “A place where you don’t feel judged and others share in your passion for horses. It is one great big family where lifelong friendships are forged and unforgettable memories are made.” 

Kara Lawler, Grier School Head of Admissions, can be reached at klawler@grier.org or at 814-684-3000 ext. 7006

*This story was originally published in the August 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!

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