The Rundown: Life After Youth

The Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show is a chance for competitors to showcase years of hard work with their horses, but what many don’t realize is that it’s also the chance to launch their collegiate riding career.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

You work with your one horse all year, or maybe for many years, and you get one shot to make it all count when you step into the Jim Norick Arena at the Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show.

As you walk around the warm-up pen in the Super Barn, you push out of your mind the fact that your horse has been anticipating a lead change or scotching on his stops. Gone are the worries that you need to make this run count to make your parents proud, to make your trainer pleased and to earn yourself another ride in the finals. 

The ability to control your mental game is what can make the difference between a finals qualifying run or a long drive home. This ability is also what gives successful collegiate equestrian riders an edge against their competitors.

There’s a lot that goes into selecting a rider who can handle the pressures of competing on a collegiate equestrian team, especially because riders are competing in a format where they don’t know the horse they’re about to show .

In August, collegiate equestrian team coaches from across the country will flock to Oklahoma City for one of their greatest recruiting opportunities – the Ford Youth World

The Upper Echelon

Tana McKay and Casie Lisabeth know what to look for in riders to build a national championship team.

Tana, head coach of the Texas A&M University Women’s Equestrian Team, has coached her team to three straight western national championships at the Varsity Equestrian National Championships. Casie, head coach of the Kansas State University Women’s Equestrian Team, has vied against the Aggies for the last two years in the western national championship round and has coached the Wildcats to back-to-back reserve western national champions at the VENC in 2010 and 2011.

Tana explains that because Varsity Equestrian is an emerging NCAA sport, there are limitations on how, as coaches, they are able to interact with prospective athletes. 

“We can speak to seniors after July 1, prior to their senior year,” she says. “We can talk to them off-campus. However, we can’t talk to them unless they’re completely finished showing for that entire circuit or show. Even if they may be done showing for that day, we still can’t talk to them unless they’ve been completely released from their trainers or coaches and they’re completely done. It makes it a little bit challenging because obviously students may be showing more than one day. If they’re younger than that, we can’t talk to them at all. They can introduce themselves if they’d like, but as far as discussing anything about competitions or the school or recruiting, we can’t do anything of that.”

Great Catch Riders

There are certain things that both Tana and Casie look for in riders that they think will be successful in a collegiate equestrian program.

“It’s a little bit different because we’re asking riders to catch ride, which they’ve probably never done before,” Tana says. “We try to read through some of that and see who has the best timing and feel and who might best acclimate to riding different types of horses.”

“Soft hands are a huge thing for our horses that they’re on,” Casie notes. “I try to watch their 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.”

Casie and Tana agree on most points on what makes a great collegiate equestrienne and have very similar recruiting practices, which isn’t all that surprising to Casie.

“I guess that’s what happens when she raises me,” Casie laughs. Casie herself rode under Tana’s guidance at Texas A&M when the school still competed in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association format.

Both coaches agree that watching the warm-up pen is an invaluable recruiting tool for them.

“One of the main things we’re looking for are proper form and function,” Tana explains. “We also like to find the extremely functional rider, so we’ll spend time watching the warm-up pen and watching riders work with their horses because, obviously, in the show pen they’re trying to be as perfect as possible.” 

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

Mistakes Happen 

Tana and Casie both agree that just because a rider might make a mistake or have a blow-up in the show pen that doesn’t mean that he or she is automatically written off as a prospect. 

“I kind of like it when mistakes happen because I want to see what they do when things go wrong: If they miss a lead, can they pick it up within one stride or does it take them four or five strides to realize that they’re out of lead?” Tana explains.

“I want to see more of how they handle (mistakes) and the (Ford) Youth World is a really hard time for that,” Casie says. “I understand that ‘this is it’ – this is not a weekend show, this is what you’ve worked all year for. Taking that into consideration, I want to see girls ride more times than just at that (Ford) Youth World. 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?”

Keeping Tabs

Tana and Casie keep tabs on riders throughout the years by taking notes at the Ford Youth World and traveling to shows around the country.

“You get to know these kids – you know who they ride (with), and they know a lot of the other students, and we want to make sure they’re going to be good Aggies and good teammates because that’s something else we’ve never asked them to do before,” Tana says. “Most of these equestrian athletes have never had to be part of a team, and that’s a huge part of it as well. When you have other aspects of being part of a team and being a team member and pulling your own weight, it’s not just yourself anymore.

“I’m sure every coach does it a little bit differently, but you may see a rider, maybe jot down their name and try to find out who they ride with and try to find out how old they are,” she continues. “That’s one of the challenging things in our sport – just because they’re in the youth class, they may be 15 or 16, and it’s hard to get information on them and know exactly how old they are because we can’t email until they’re juniors and we can’t have telephone calls or in-person off-campus contact until they’re seniors. That makes it a little bit difficult. The best thing for student athletes to do, if they’re interested in (Varsity Equestrian), is to start early and start emailing coaches and getting their name out there and letting the coaches know that they’re interested, even if the coaches can’t respond.”

A Side Note

There’s no reason to put added pressure on yourself if you’re interested in a collegiate equestrian career and competing at the Ford Youth World. But knowing that you’re on display at all times is a good thing to keep in mind as you conduct yourself in a business-like manner.

Good luck in the show pen!