By AMANDA PICCIOTTO FEITOSA / JUMP MEDIA
As equestrian sport has grown in popularity across the United States, so have the collegiate riding opportunities for student-athletes. Unique programs have been developed to satisfy different disciplines of riding, including United States Eventing Association Intercollegiate Eventing, the Intercollegiate Saddle Seat Riding Association, and the Intercollegiate Dressage Association. Jumping Seat and Western riding also have a strong presence in the collegiate riding scene, with the American National Riding Commission, Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), and National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA). Several of the annual championship competitions, such as the IHSA National Championship Horse Show and NCEA National Championship, have even become popular spectator events for the greater equestrian community, with both appearing on Horse & Country’s streaming service, H&C+.
We spoke to some notable alumni of the IHSA and NCEA programs to see what it is that makes riding in college such a memorable and special experience.
All About the Team
After high school and a gap-year, U.S. Olympic team gold medalist Peter Wylde was prepared to take a step back from his incredible junior riding years to focus on being a student at Tufts University. While earning his degree in history and sociology was the primary focus, Wylde enjoyed the atmosphere of the IHSA club team. He contributed to team’s national reserve championship in 1985 and went on to win the IHSA’s coveted Cacchione Cup, awarded to the high-point open equitation rider, in 1986.
“The camaraderie, fun, and team spirit was the best,” he recalled. “I had always competed at a high level, and everything was very intense. To have the beginner walk-trot round count as much as my open equitation round really spoke volumes to me. To see everyone take it as seriously and be so into it really made me realize how incredibly great horses are for so many different people at so many different levels. I really appreciated that perspective, and riding in the IHSA opened my eyes to that.”
Laena Romond had a successful junior riding career and continued her winning ways on the Mt. Holyoke Equestrian Team. The biochemistry major was the recipient of the Cacchione Cup during her freshman year of college in 2002 and has since gone on to ride and train professionally at the esteemed Heritage Farm in Katonah, New York, and Wellington, Florida.
“Without a doubt, the team aspect of college riding was the highlight for me,” she said “I knew I enjoyed the camaraderie and connection of the team environment from my high school experience in other sports, but up to that point, riding had been a mostly solitary activity for me as I kept my horse at home and did most of my riding in my backyard. It was the best of both worlds to have an opportunity to ride and compete as an individual while also representing a team and benefiting from that atmosphere. Now that I have made a career in the equestrian industry, the experience of riding on a team, where you compete for more than yourself, has been invaluable. Walking into the ring with your teammates’ expectations on your shoulders — and the pressure that comes with that — isn’t so different from showing a horse for a client or being at the ingate for someone at an important event. Knowing I can count on myself when the stakes are high is something I was able to develop as part of the team.”
Two-time U.S. Olympic team gold medalist and two-time Pan American gold medalist Beezie Madden rode for Southern Seminary College when she was the recipient of the 1984 Cacchione Cup. She, of course, went on to add four Olympic medals, four World Championships medals, four World Equestrian Games medals, and five Pan American Games medals, as well as numerous grand prix wins, to her long list of riding accolades. Madden also was a two-time winner of the FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final and was inducted into the Washington International Horse Show Hall of Fame in 2022.
“The idea of competing on a team and riding strange horses without much warm-up time was appealing to me,” she explained. “That aspect of the intercollegiate riding provided some of my best experiences at school. We had a very competitive team, so we rode under pressure, and if we were able to contribute to a win, it was a very gratifying feeling. Having the experience of riding on a team definitely helped me with my future of riding for the U.S. team. Our usual individual events can’t compare to the ambience and pressure of riding on a team, so I was grateful to have had the college riding as a lead-in to other team situations.”
After a competitive junior riding career, Abby O’Mara wasn’t sure exactly where her passion for riding would take her. Upon touring schools with and without riding programs, she fell in love with the University of Georgia, where she was a standout on the NCEA team from 2010-2014. In her time at college, she discovered a joy for teaching and graduated with a master’s in education psychology. O’Mara then combined her academic and athletic pursuits and now serves as the Associate Head Coach of the Texas A&M NCEA Equestrian Team.
“The best part of my time at Georgia was being a part of a team,” she expressed. “Before college, I had never really participated competitively on a team. Having 65 teammates supporting you and having your back was such a blessing. It also gave you built-in best friends!”
Abby O’Mara’s younger sister, Meg O’Mara, also had a prolific junior career. In fact, she initially enrolled in college in Florida to be close to her grand prix horses and continue to focus on that aspect of her life. She quickly realized, however, that she wanted a more complete college experience and enrolled at University of Georgia, also joining the NCEA team. It turned out to be a pivotal decision as she helped lead the Bulldogs to the 2014 NCEA National Championship title her first year there.
“The best takeaways from my collegiate riding career were, without a doubt, the intrinsic values the program imparted on me,” she said. “I learned how to be a teammate, both to the horse and to those around me, in different situations with many personalities. The experience taught me that if you invest in the teammate standing next to you, it transfers to the rest of the team. The coaches and teammates I met along the way, as well as the memories we made, are ingrained in me forever. Being able to represent an institution like Georgia lit me up!”
International grand prix rider and trainer Carly Anthony was certain she didn’t want to go to a school for riding until a friend, who was a freshman student-athlete, convinced her to check out University of Georgia. They welcomed her with open arms, and she couldn’t pass up the amazing opportunity, enrolling in 2008. Anthony went on to receive All-American honors all four years she attended and was presented with the Distinguished Alumni Award in the equine professional field at the 2023 NCEA National Championship due to her outstanding career in jumping and multiple Nations Cup team appearances for the U.S.
“Having never competed on an equestrian team event prior to the NCEA, it was an incredible opportunity to practice the pressure and focus needed to pull out that winning point for your team, like one would do on a Nations Cup team,” she shared. “I got to spend four years making mistakes, learning about myself, learning about how to work with others, riding under a lot of pressure, and becoming a more well-rounded person all while being surrounded by my peers who were all going through the same thing. I made lifelong friends that I get to work with now in the industry, follow in other industries, attend their weddings, watch them start families, and feel a part of an incredible community of women who are all going on to achieve incredible things.”
From Student-Athlete to the Future
“There are a lot of schools with equine studies programs, not just riding teams,” said Wylde. “It’s an amazing opportunity for students to ride and learn about the industry. There are so many different horse-related jobs where the knowledge of horses and horse care is so valuable. The IHSA program can be a huge door-opener for kids who want to be part of the industry in numerous capacities.”
“From a practical standpoint, the relationships I built while on the team were valuable to me, especially after college ended and I had to make decisions about what direction I wanted to go professionally,” stated Romond. “At the time, I knew I wanted riding to play a role in my life, but I didn’t see a clear path to making it my profession. Seeing teammates who continued to ride while they started careers or continued their graduate degrees gave me confidence that I could do the same. Regardless of your background in the sport, you will experience it in a new way in college. You will face challenges you haven’t encountered before, but you will also be able to bring your unique strengths and experiences to the table and contribute to the team.”
“I would definitely recommend college riding to a student who wants to pursue future equestrian endeavors,” said Madden. “It for sure benefits those students who don’t have the means to fly to one of the winter circuits every weekend, but it can also benefit those who do have the means to have a nice string of horses and travel back and forth to school. Riding the borrowed horses and having the team experience can be very beneficial to everyone.”
“Riding in college is one of the best ways to continue riding at a high and competitive level,” commented Abby O’Mara of the NCEA program. “You can get a top-tier education with the chance to receive a scholarship. Equestrian athletes are treated extremely well by the athletics department and are supported just like all other athletes at the university. It is a huge opportunity!”
“College riding not only kept me close and grounded to the animal I grew up with, but it also taught me countless lessons in perseverance, character, and leadership,” reflected Meg O’Mara. “I can’t recommend it enough. Those years were the best and most influential of my life.”
“Being on an NCEA team comes with so many opportunities and privileges,” added Anthony. “Athletes receive personalized tutoring, personal training and physical therapy, mental coaching, media management, nutritional education, athlete housing, and the list goes on. In order to set myself up for success in the future, I knew I had to take advantage of all the benefits riding on a NCEA team had to offer. After I graduated, I started my professional career with confidence in myself and my professional abilities that I wouldn’t have had if I went to a normal university.”
While each rider had an individual path to the college riding community, some ideals are obviously universal – the benefits of a team atmosphere combined with the knowledge, connections, and resources gained are indisputable. As described throughout, part of the college search process is finding the right fit for each prospective student, and the same is true of joining a college riding program.
With many options, it’s possible for every young rider to make the most of their college riding experience. Take it from Wylde, Romond, Madden, Abby O’Mara, Meg O’Mara, or Anthony – collegiate equestrian can be the ride of your life.
To watch some of the current star collegiate student-athletes cap off their exciting seasons, check out the upcoming livestream of the IHSA National Championship Horse Show on May 4-7, as well as on-demand coverage of the NCEA National Championship available now on H&C.
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