College Prep, Part 2

A collegiate horseback-riding career starts with recruitment. Here's what coaches look for.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

Some equestrian team coaches attend championship shows such as the AQHYA World Championship Show to recruit riders. Journal photo.

In Part 1 of this series, you learned how Intercollegiate Horse Show Association and National Collegiate Equestrian Association collegiate horse showing works. Read on to learn how coaches search for potential team riders.

How You React

While shows and circuits across the country are fodder for recruiting opportunities, many coaches flock to the Built Ford Tough 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 Lisabeth Maxwell, head coach of the Kansas State University NCEA women’s equestrian team in Manhattan, Kansas. 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 (Ford) 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?”

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Greg Williams, head coach of the Auburn University women’s NCEA team in Auburn, Alabama, has a similar mind-set: “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.

Be a Good Sport

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.

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“We do hear comments from the stands; we do see some candidates showing a lot of attitude,” he 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.”

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 Love-Ricketson, the head coach of the West Texas A&M University equestrian team in Canyon, Texas. “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.”