Sweet Briar College: How The All-Women’s College Has Built A Legacy In The Arena—And The Classroom

Aerial view of campus

BY April Bilodeau

When it’s time to decide where to continue their education, most college-age equestrians base their choice on what riding programs the school offers…while most parents key into the academics and course offerings.

For families who want to focus on both, Sweet Briar College is the perfect choice. 

Situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains of Sweet Briar, VA, the all-women’s college was founded in 1901, and their equestrian program has been around for over 100 years.

Merrilee “Mimi” Wroten has been a faculty member of the Sweet Briar Community for over 27 years, becoming the Director of Riding 12 years ago and the Head NCEA Coach 6 years ago when SBC joined the NCEA. Wroten and her team of coaches and instructors aim to give all riders at the school a variety of riding experiences, whether that’s wanting to ride for pleasure or to go on to become a professional in the sport.

“The skill and experience levels of riders vary greatly,” says Wroten. “But we work to support everyone’s goals as riders regardless of if they are beginners or advanced.”

“Some of our riding students have never touched a horse before,” says Wroten. “Those are some of my favorite lessons. It’s rewarding to teach a student how to care for their horse, tack up, mount and later see them flourish as riders.”

Team Options

Rachel Chard ’26 and SBC’s Star Jewel, Overall Novice Champion at ANRC Nationals

Sweet Briar offers several options for equestrians who want to ride in college. For the casual rider, they have a recreational riding program where students may take lessons and enjoy the facilities, horses and land of a nationally recognized program.

For those who prefer to ride on a team, the school offers opportunities to join the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) team, American National Riding Commission (ANRC) team, and National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) team. In fact, Sweet Briar was the first college to be a part of the NCEA as a single-discipline and Division III team. 

While the teams may fall under different organizations, Wroten and her team treat all 40 students on the teams as Varsity Athletes.

“We think of the NCEA and IHSA teams as one team,” says Wroten. “Some team members may practice on the NCEA squad but start off competing in IHSA”.

Students who compete on a team are expected to have one flat lesson per week, one jumping lesson per week, at least one additional practice and are encouraged to ride between lessons. 

Regardless of which team a student chooses, Sweet Briar offers as much saddle time as possible while also stressing the importance of good horsemanship. 

“We challenge our students to think about what they learn from one horse and how it might apply to riding a variety of horses,” says Wroten. “Really the point we stress is, ‘Are you riding in a way that shows how a correct position positively affects the function and communication with the horse?’”

Equine Programs at Sweet Briar

Outside of the ring, Sweet Briar offers several opinions for students to continue their equine education. 

The college offers two certificate programs that act as minors at the school.

The Equine Studies – Management Concentration is a combination of business, horse care, and environmental science, with a curriculum to prepare students for a career in various areas of the equine industry.

The second certificate program is a Teaching and Schooling Concentration. This certificate is earned through classroom theoretical studies and riding course work with hands-on experience.

“Over the last few years the programs have become more established,” says Wroten. “We have lots of connections so that students are able to branch out and do things that interest them.”

The Benefit of Horses

Students bringing in horses at the 130-acre Harriet Howell Rogers Riding Center which is a short distance from the center of campus.

While Sweet Briar offers education to women with a variety of academic interests, the college also puts their equine program at the forefront, understanding just how important the sport is to many. 

“Horses are so special and to have that asset available to students on a college campus can be life-changing,” says Wroten. “I truly believe that horses help humans find confidence, focus, and balance while promoting empathy for all living beings. This pairs well with the leadership program and liberal arts education being offered at Sweet Briar College.” 

For more information on Sweet Briar College, visit www.sbc.edu.