College Equestrian Teams: What Coaches Look for in Recruits

College Equestrian Teams: What Coaches Look for in Recruits

Coaches share their tips and how-to's for being recruited to a collegiate equestrian team.

Auburn University repeats as NCEA National Collegiate Equestrian Champions. (Andrew Ryback photo)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Tara Matsler

Saying goodbye to the ol’ show horse and the beloved show scene – that’s a daunting thought for a youth competitor. Thanks to the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association and the National Collegiate Equestrian Association, showing doesn’t have to wait until college graduation day. These organizations offer student exhibitors the chance to continue honing their riding skills and enjoy competition close to the college classroom.

Fellow competitors who have been there, done that are a great source of knowledge when it comes to learning how to navigate the waters of getting on an equestrian team. But the Journal went straight to the horse’s mouth for the low-down on how you can be recruited and join a collegiate equestrian team. NCEA coaches Casie Maxwell and Greg Williams, plus IHSA coaches Carla Wennberg and Amanda Ellis weigh in with their do’s and don’ts for aspiring collegiate riders.

What collegiate equestrian coaches look for in recruits?

Hit ride, catch ride, whatever you want to call it, it’s not the same as riding your own familiar show steed. In IHSA competitions, riders mount and then show - no warm-up is allowed. NCEA riders, on the other hand, have a little bit more of a learning curve, with a four-minute warm-up in horsemanship and five minutes for reining.

“You’ve got to get used to being adjustable to the horses,” says Greg Williams, head coach of the Auburn University women’s NCEA team in Auburn, Alabama. “In those four minutes, you aren’t about to re-train that horse, get him coming your way or anything like that. The only thing that you can do training-wise is to just sharpen him up.”

Timing and Feel

To evaluate whether a rider is going to fit with the collegiate riding format, Greg looks at the rider’s timing and feel.

“Our big question is, ‘What are they going to do on a tough horse?’ ” he says. For reining recruits, Greg prefers riders who also have a background in rail and pattern classes in addition to reining, because he finds those riders can best handle the wide variety of horses that are thrown at them. “You may get a super-hot reiner one day, the next day, you’re basically getting a glorified horsemanship horse that you’re doing reining on … (Reining competitors) who also have experience at showing a lot of other events don’t try to mold all horses into one style.”

Timing and feel is also a major requirement for riders under Casie Maxwell, head coach of the Baylor University NCEA women’s equestrian team in Waco, Texas.

Riding with your legs and having soft hands are two huge things for our horses that they’re on,” she says. “I try to watch riders’ timing for how they ask their horse to lope off and when they ask him to change leads and things like that – I think it tells a lot about how a horse is taking care of somebody and how much a rider can help them along and cover up the mistakes.”


Amanda Ellis, head coach of the West Texas A&M University’s IHSA equestrian team in Canyon, Texas, likes to see riders who have a background on multiple horses.

“(In competition), you’re literally drawing a horse’s name out of hat,” Amanda says.

“It’s pretty exciting that we have high expectations for a horse that you’ve sat on for about 30 seconds, to go out there and perform like a champion.

“I tell (my riders) to ride multiple horses, because that’s the nature of the beast that we do.”

“Probably the riders who struggle the most are the kids who have had that same youth horse their entire career and have learned their specific buttons, but maybe not a universal set of buttons for all horses out there that work in that discipline,” Amanda says. She’s also an advocate for riders taking lessons under multiple trainers to adjust to new kinds of instruction.

Although a recruit should have a lot of experience riding tough horses – and maybe even showing tough ones – Greg says those shouldn’t be the only type of horse a recruit rides before coming to college.

“Some horses are tough – make sure you don’t develop bad habits by always riding those.”

He adds, “You can’t get the timing on a really good horsemanship horse or a really good reiner without riding him. “If you only seem to have access to those that are tough, you probably need to do a lot of volunteer work for friends and trainers to see if you can’t spend some time on some finely tuned horses so that you learn that kind of rhythm and that kind of timing.

“One thing that’s important that college riding exposes more than anything else are the true horsemen. If you’re a true horseman, you need to remember that first, and you can probably adapt.”

Where do collegiate equestrian coaches recruit?

While shows and circuits across the country are fodder for recruiting opportunities, many coaches flock to the Ford AQHYA World Championship Show to find their next star rider or to keep an eye on potential recruits.

There’s a lot that goes into selecting a rider who can handle the pressures of competing for a collegiate equestrian team. Knowing that there is also a lot of stress that comes with showing at the top level, the Ford Youth World sets the perfect stage for coaches to see how riders react in a high-stress situation.

“I understand that ‘this is it’ – this is not a weekend show, this is what you’ve worked all year for,” says Casie. But coaches also take those world championship rides with a grain of salt, keeping in mind a wide variety of factors that play into the equation.

“I want to see candidates ride more times than just at the Youth World,” she adds. “I like to go out during the regular season and during the qualifying period and see that if they do mess up, how do they fix that? How do they school their horse? If their horse does get a little show smart – and in the reining, especially – what do they do in those situations?”

Greg has a similar mindset: “If (coaches are) there to watch you, they already know something about you, they’re probably going to be more concerned about how you react in the practice pen.”

He says, “Watching (a rider) on a good horse and having a mistake with a good horse, the only thing (a coach) can probably really be concerned about is how (the rider) reacts.

“Coaches can tell what’s horse error and what’s rider error,” he says. “If a big error happens or a big mistake happens, how they conduct themselves, how they work with the horse for the rest of the pattern or the rest of their event, whatever it may be, I think that might say more than the actual mistake.”

AQHA Professional Horsewoman Carla Wennberg tries to make her trips to judge AQHA shows dual purpose. Now the western coach for the St. Andrew’s University IHSA team in Laurinburg, North Carolina, Carla also has experience as an NCEA coach.

“I recruit (now) just like I did with NCEA, because for me as a judge I’m very lucky that I get to see great riders all over the country,” she says. “If I see somebody (I like), I’ll write down their number.” And once she returns home, Carla will make a point to contact that rider.

Since NCEA is an emerging NCAA sport, it’s governed by NCAA rules, which set guidelines on coaches’ contact with recruits. However, IHSA coaches are not bound by those same rules.

Sportsmanship: What collegiate equestrian team coaches look for

Coaches find that some of the most telling moments while watching recruits at shows happen when the cameras are figuratively turned off.

“I think the warm-up pens are the best places – at 2 a.m., you can listen to what that trainer is telling that prospect and how that prospect is reacting to that and what they have to say,” Casie says. “I like to sit and watch and listen to the trainers coaching them and how they’re interacting with each other.”

Greg says he’s also mindful of recruits in the stands and always keeps his eyes and ears open.

“We do hear comments from the stands; we do see some candidates showing a lot of attitude,” Greg says. “You’ve also got to remember these coaches are thinking about bringing you into a group of candidates that are very important to them – almost like bringing one into the family. If you show a really nasty attitude and sit up in the stands and blame everybody and your horse for what’s going on, I would say, in my eyes, that would be very unappealing.

“You want to conduct yourself as a good sportsman, be courteous and keep your manners and watch what you say – you should always be doing that.”

“It’s important for prospects to be themselves when the coaches are around, but also to keep in mind that they are being looked at to potentially have a career riding in college,” Casie says. “Riding is most important, but attitude, sportsmanship and communication are also key factors in your success. I turn away from prospects who are quick to blame the judges for their placing or the horse for their performance – I want riders who take responsibility for the areas they can control. The rider who can also put herself aside and cheer on the other competitors in their barn (or team in the collegiate arena) will make a lasting impression on me.”

Collegiate Equestrian: an individual or team sport?

Teamwork – no matter if you’re talking about NCEA or IHSA – is a crucial element.

“I tell (my riders), ‘I can teach you to be a great rider; I can’t teach you to be a good person,’ ” says Amanda. “Working in a team dynamic is really important for me; we preach ‘Be like a team’ at all times. It’s great to have a standout individual, but we hope to have a standout team that has a lot of individual success along the way.

“If I can find riders who are pretty natural riders, we can train them to be great riders. And if I can keep them interacting with their team enough, then they’re going to become a great team member, and when we have a lot of success is when we have that cohesiveness as a team.”

Carla shares the same sentiment.

“(Collegiate riding provides) great life lessons for working together, helping each other and ultimately having a goal together, because you know everything we do in life is working with each other. That’s a great lesson for us to learn in college.”

Sportsmanship, Carla says, goes beyond interacting with teammates. She also thinks of it in terms of how riders handle new horses.

“You have to make a friendship (with the horse); you cannot dictate to these horses because especially the school horses will sell you out. It’s about developing a friendship and a balance of that friendship with the horse.”