It’s still an NCAA emerging sport for women – at least for now. But if it is to remain on that list, it has a hard trail ahead. The sport isn’t beach volleyball or triathlon, though; it’s equestrian. And according to an article originally published in the NCAA Champion Magazine, the ongoing work of keeping the sport alive at the varsity level involves a constant battle of dispelling misconceptions in order to make administrators understand the relevance of the sport.
Equestrian’s story with the NCAA began in 2002, when the organization added it to its list of emerging sports for women in Divisions I and II. (Division III does not offer equestrian sports.) The Emerging Sports for Women program is overseen by the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics, whose mission is to help women’s sports become full-fledged NCAA championships. However, in order to remain on the list of emerging sports, a sport must grow to 40 varsity teams within 10 years or risk being voted off the list by each division.
In 2014, when equestrian didn’t meet that threshold, the Committee on Women’s Athletics recommended that Divisions I and II remove it from their lists. The Division I Strategic Vision and Planning Committee did not take a vote and instead tabled the issue in June 2015. Because the issue was not voted on, equestrian is still an NCAA emerging sport for women in Division I.
Division II followed the recommendation at the 2015 NCAA Convention to remove equestrian from its emerging sports list; however, the following year, at the Division II Business Session which was part of the 2016 NCAA Convention held in San Antonio, Texas, the DII membership institutions defeated the proposal to remove equestrian from the emerging sport list. This cleared the way for current DII schools to maintain their equestrian programs as countable sports on their campus and has also opened the path for other DII schools to report their equestrian teams to the NCAA as countable sports on their campuses.
And that is where the National Collegiate Equestrian Association comes in. The organization (formerly known as Varsity Equestrian), whose stated mission is providing collegiate opportunities for female equestrian student-athletes to compete at the highest level, while embracing equity, diversity and promoting academic and competitive excellence, has had to add another mission: keeping the programs alive.
Leah Fiorentino, who took over as the association’s executive director, has been instrumental in this regard. According to the NCAA magazine, Fiorentino spent her first year in office launching a reorganization of the association, “including the formation of a board of directors and a national advisory board. She has worked to dispel common misconceptions, including those tied to the price tag of the sport’s four-legged stars. And, most notably, she has met with college administrators and equestrian advocates across the country, all in an effort to rein in enough support to preserve equestrian’s spot in the NCAA.”
Fiorentino and other equestrian fans are working to increase awareness and interest in their sport. They are also discouraging those who say having a varsity sport is unimportant, and that equestrian can continue in schools as long as it is offered on the recreational, intramural or club level.
“A club experience doesn’t provide a student with the same opportunities that a varsity sport would provide them,” Fiorentino said in the article. “Without that kind of connection to the NCAA, the sport would really be a challenge.”
The calendar of competitive equestrian events at the NCAA level runs from September through February. The setup of events is also different from that of a private horse show. Riders do not bring their own horses to events; each school shares its own herd of horses (most of which have been donated to the school) during competitive events. Events in competition include Hunt Seat Equitation Over Fences, Hunt Seat Equitation on the Flat, Western Horsemanship and Western Reining.
In each event, five riders from each team are tested in head-to-head competitions. Five horses are selected for each event. Each rider is paired with one of the five horses in a random draw before the competition. She is able to watch the horse warm up and receives four minutes to practice on her assigned mount before competing. Riders from opposing teams compete on the same horse in the head-to-head competition. Each rider receives a score, and the rider with the highest score receives one point for her team. In NCEA competition, the level of difficulty is demonstrated by the accuracy of the pattern and how the competitor uses the horse that she draws to the best of her ability.
More than 800 women now compete in varsity equestrian programs sponsored by 23 NCAA schools. In addition, Fiorentino said 11 other Division I schools have expressed interest in starting an NCAA team.