The Rundown: Saving Women's Equestrian

This is why the horse industry needs to work together right now to save the NCAA emerging sport of women’s equestrian.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

During my four years on the Texas A&M women's equestrian team, we won three NCEA national champions. This was the first, the 2009 western national championship. I'm in the front row, far right – a completely emotional mess. That's not too surprising of a response, I say, when your team does such an upstanding job representing its university's athletic program. (Credit: Maggie Gratny)

You may have heard the rumor that the National Collegiate Athletics Association has discontinued women’s equestrian. And it’s just that – a rumor. 

This is a critical time for the NCAA emerging sport of women’s equestrian. AQHA clarified the matter in this statement. I’ll say it: The outlook does not look good for this varsity sport. But that’s not to say the horse industry can’t rally – right now – behind the sport that treats our equestriennes as student-athletes. Together, we might be able to save and continue to legitimize the sport of horse showing.

Why does it matter if women’s equestrian is an NCAA sport?

You’ve probably had to justify to your non-horsey friends – just as I have had to – that riding and showing horses is indeed a sport and not just a recreational activity. Chances are that they didn’t believe you. 

My high school vice principal was less than thrilled when I missed a lot of school days my senior year for horse shows. That all changed when I had a heart-to-heart with her, highlighting the fact that I was being recruited by Division I schools for a spot on their women’s equestrian teams. Equestrian was my sport, and since it wasn’t offered through high school athletics, it was only fitting to miss a few days here and there to compete, right? Right. 

In my graduating class of 600+, I was one of two students who landed a spot on a Division I athletics team. I was one of just a handful who went on to play collegiate athletics – period. 

In August 2006, I didn’t even know what collegiate equestrian was until I was recruited by those Division I schools. By the time I graduated from Texas A&M University, the girls coming onto the team had been positioning themselves for years to be recruited by a National Collegiate Equestrian Association team. 

This is the story across the United States, or even the globe for that matter. Take Jessie Leach for example: The AQHA competitor and Baylor University student-athlete hopped the pond from the United Kingdom to represent the Baylor Bears in Waco, Texas. 

Let’s keep in mind, too, the terrible impact this will have on the universities that have heavily invested in top-notch facilities for their equestrian athletes. But even more important, what about all the horses owned by the athletic departments? Most of them are second-career show horses that have found their niche with collegiate equestrian teams. I shudder to think about how they all will be placed with new owners. 

OK, but there’s still opportunities outside of NCAA for students to compete on collegiate equestrian teams, right?

Yes, that is completely true. The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association has done an impeccable job of curating a collegiate equestrian program for both women and men (because of Title IX, equestrian is a women-only sport in NCAA). The IHSA system provides competition opportunities for riders of a multitude of levels, from walk-jog to advanced. Because of this, IHSA is an awesome funnel for the horse industry. It takes college students who have never had the chance to ride or compete and gives them an affordable, fun way to do so. 

Teams that fall under IHSA are designated as club sports on their campuses. And there are a handful that are treated with more athletic status than others. Yet for the most part, team members are required to pay dues and equipment costs and fundraise to pay for their extracurricular activity because they are not a fully school-sponsored sport. Chances are that if the plug is pulled on NCAA equestrian, the NCEA teams will return to the IHSA model or will be dropped completely.

These are some of the benefits I received as a student-athlete at Texas A&M University on its NCEA team (and benefits I know older Aggie equestriennes who competed on the school’s IHSA team were green with envy over):

  • Free tutoring
  • Priority class scheduling
  • Paid travel expenses to competitions
  • Free uniforms and team gear
  • One free plane ticket a year to visit home 
  • Free athletic event tickets
  • Free medical treatment to see a walk-in clinic doctor, sports medicine professional and chiropractor
  • The opportunity to be named a letterman at a Division I school
  • The chance to represent my university at conference and national championship events

So what can the horse industry do to save women’s equestrian?

Earlier this summer, the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics requested a strategic plan from the National Collegiate Equestrian Association on how equestrian planned on seeing growth in sponsoring schools. 

The equestrian strategic plan was built and provided to the CWA for review at its September meeting. Following this meeting, with no further discussion of the strategic plan, the CWA provided a letter to the NCEA on September 30, informing the NCEA of the committees’ recommendation to remove equestrian from the emerging-sport list.

Because of that recommendation, collegiate equestrian is not being given the chance to implement its strategic plan. 

That’s where you come in. If you care about a successful future for the horse industry and opportunities for our young women, let NCAA know. Send heartfelt, positive letters to NCAA President Mark Emmert, touting the benefits of collegiate equestrian for women, their universities, the horse industry and the NCAA. Appeal to Mr. Emmert to allow the equestrian strategic plan time to work its magic.  

If collegiate equestrian loses NCAA sponsorship, how will this impact the horse industry?

Right now, the American Quarter Horse industry is seeing growth in the number of youth competing at horse shows. This year, the Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show saw one of its best shows in years in terms of entry numbers and quality of competition. You can’t deny this has a direct tie to collegiate equestrian. Girls have a reason to show horses – they have the benefit of collegiate athletics and scholarships on the line. What’s to stop the 14-year-old who’s struggling to juggle horse showing and volleyball to drop horse showing all together so she can pursue a collegiate volleyball career? Folks, our industry needs girls to choose horses over soccer. 

AQHA’s industry alliances know this to be true, too. The National Reining Horse and American Paint Horse associations, as well, are actively opposing this collegiate equestrian issue. The United States Equestrian Federation and United States Hunter Jumper Association are also involved.

Why do I, Tara Matsler, care so much about the success of collegiate equestrian? It’s for the same reason I work at the American Quarter Horse Association. This Horse and this industry have given me more than I could ever imagine; I want to be certain young horsewomen receive the same opportunities I was afforded, if not more. 

Let the NCAA know that you care, too. And while you’re at it, tell the athletic directors you support them and their decision to keep women’s equestrian as a university-sponsored sport. This is about more than you, me and our horses. This is about our future. This is about the horse industry’s future.

Enjoy more horse-showing quips, quotes and anecdotes from AQHA Internet Editor Tara Matsler by visiting The Rundown archives at www.aqha.com/therundown.