Higher Education Offers New Riding Opportunities
By Christina Keim
Riding is generally considered an individual sport; the opportunity to compete as a member of a riding team is sometimes viewed as being reserved for the equestrian elite. The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA, Inc.) was founded in the late 1960s to provide college equestrians with a fun, affordable way to compete against riders from other schools. The concept really took off, and today the organization boasts over 8,300 members representing over 370 colleges and universities.
While IHSA’s format of “catch riding” appeals to many students, there are numerous other opportunities available for college-level riders ranging from drill team participation to polocrosse. This article looks at other club and team options that are available for the collegiate equestrian athlete.
Polocrosse: Dartmouth College According to Sally Batton, Director of Riding at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., polocrosse is a combination of polo and lacrosse, played on horseback. Although polocrosse had probably been played for years in the United States by expat players from Australia and Africa, the sport had its official introduction in 1980 when students at Lake Erie College in Ohio brought polocrosse home from their academic term abroad in Australia. The students brought back racquets and balls to Lake Erie and started the first club with other equine students eager for an affordable team equestrian sport. It became an official club sport at Dartmouth in 2006, thanks to the efforts of students Page Wagley and Virginia Deaton. However, Batton has been teaching students how to play polocrosse at the Dartmouth Riding Center since 1990.
“Polocrosse can be played outside on a field or indoors,” says Batton. “Each rider uses a cane racquet head with a loose thread net in which the ball is carried. The ball is made of sponge rubber and is approximately 4 inches across. The objective is to score goals by throwing the ball between two goal posts.”
Unlike polo, players are allowed only to play one horse, and each horse/rider team plays every other time period, or chukka. A team consists of six players, divided into two sections of three who play three or four alternate chukkas of six to eight minutes. The three players in each section play the position of Number 1, Attack, Number 2, Midfield (a combination of defense and offense), or Number 3, Defense.
“The things I like best about polocrosse are galloping across huge fields, developing teamwork with other players and with your horse, and riding with a purpose,” says Rebecca Vogel, Dartmouth ’11.
Polocrosse does require a bit of space to play properly; the field is 60 yards x 160 yards and contains three separate areas. The goal scoring areas, on each end, are 30 yards long.
“Only the Number 1 of the attacking team and the Number 3 of the defending team can play in [the goal scoring] areas,” says Batton. “The middle area is 100 yards long. The line separating the goal scoring and center areas is called the penalty or thirty-yard line. Goal posts are eight feet apart. To score, the ball must be thrown from outside an 11-yard semi-circle in front of the goal.”
At Dartmouth, riders are required to have basic control of the horse and to be able to at least trot prior to enrolling in a polocrosse physical education class. Tournament riders must be able to co fortably ride at all gaits, including the gallop.
“Women and men play on an equal basis, and all ages can play,” says Batton.
A former international polocrosse competitor, Batton says that one advantage of polocrosse over regular polo is that participation requires only one horse, as opposed to a string of six to eight horses.
“Polocrosse is affordable to the average horse owner,” says Batton. “Players play every other time period, which enables them to stay on one horse for the match, with a break every six to eight minutes.” This also makes the sport easier for some collegiate programs to incorporate, as it does not require as many horses.
Batton has been an active proponent for the sport of polocrosse in this country and works to promote it amongst collegiate and scholastic riders as well as authoring the first book on the subject, Polocrosse: Australian Made, Internationally Played. She says that currently there are several collegiate teams in North Carolina and some high school teams out west. Other collegiate players join regular polocrosse clubs across the country. The Dartmouth team has given demonstrations at the IHSA National Championships.
“Most tournaments have A grade, for the most accomplished players, B and C grade, for those players newer to the game, and D grade, for those players who are just starting the sport,” says Batton. “Tournaments also offer Junior grade for youth players.” For more information on Polocrosse at Dartmouth College, visit www.dartmouth.edu/~drc.
Drill Team: The University of Connecticut The University of Connecticut, also known as UConn, has one of the few remaining active government Morgan breeding programs in the country. Today, UConn Morgans are featured as members of the UConn Morgan Drill Team. This team provides an opportunity to showcase and promote the talents of the Morgan breed.
Kathy Pelletier, who co-founded the team in 1987 with the assistance of students, says that originally, the team consisted of just eight riders, four riding English and four riding western. They lesson program. However, Pelletier felt that the drill team presented an opportunity to showcase the success of the UConn Morgan breeding program, and so the team began using Morgans exclusively. This change brought an overall visual uniformity to the team; also, the intelligence and versatility of the Morgan breed allowed more options when developing routines and patterns.
For those not familiar with a drill team, a group of eight, 10 or 12 horses ride together, performing coordinated patterns and figures. The UConn team works together to develop a 20 to 25 minute routine. Patterns include performances on the flat and jumping, and in hunt seat and stock seat.
“All of the horses must be able to perform the maneuvers with ease, and get along with each other,” says Pelletier, who is also the assistant manager of the UConn Horse Barn. “We introduce young and old horses to our team, most of which are born and raised here. We then add music into our routine that is fitting for the demonstration we are performing.”
The UConn Morgan Drill team is a registered club sport; to be eligible to join, riders must be at the “Intermediate II level,” meaning that they can walk, trot, canter, and jump a twofoot fence. All majors are welcome; according to the team’s website, the mutual love of horses and the desire to work as a team brings all the students together as one.
The UConn Morgan Drill team is a self-supporting club. Riders pay a participation fee each semester to take part (currently $420). Each year, the team also submits a grant proposal for funding to the University Student Government; additionally, team members sometimes have to participate in fundraisers such as organizing schooling shows.
Practices are coordinated through the riding practicum at the university. The members of the UConn Morgan Drill Team work very hard to performance and riding abilities while managing to have fun in the process.
Pelletier has been involved with the team since its inception, and she says that riders who participate enjoy the freedom of riding in a different seat and perfecting the art of riding in precise formation. “They love the camaraderie with the horses and the team members,” says Pelletier.
Pelletier says that to her knowledge, collegiate drill teams are relatively uncommon. “We are a very proud team,” says Pelletier. “I only know of a few other teams.”
For more information on the history of the UConn Morgan Drill Team, visit www.canr.uconn.edu.
Versatility Ranch Horse: Colorado State University According to Club President Chelsea Strama, the CSU Versatility Ranch Horse Club is one of the newest clubs to be formed at Colorado State University (CSU). In fact, its parent organization, the National Versatility Ranch Horse Association, was just founded in 2007. Bobbie Skelton, club advisor, founded the VRH club at CSU in the fall of 2007.
“The purpose of the VRH club is to bring together students with a common interest in the ranch horse industry and ranch horse competition,” says Strama. “Also, at the AQHA website, you can research the history of the Versatility Ranch Horse.”
Strama says that the purpose of versatility ranch horse competition is to preserve the value and qualities of the working ranch horse. Horses and riders are tested in the categories of ranch riding, ranch trail, ranch cutting, working ranch horse and ranch conformation. “Many times [these qualities] remain unseen in today’s world,” says Strama.
Strama says that their club has two main purposes. “This club’s primary goal is of course to have fun, but also to educate its members on the six different skills that the National Versatility Ranch Horse Association focuses on,” says Strama. “[These] are ranch work— ranch riding, trail, roping, cutting, reining, and conformation. However, with collegiate level events the ranch conformation will not be judged.”
A unique opportunity available to club members is the chance to see the World Finals VRH Competition hosted at the National Western Stock Show in Denver each January.
Currently, the Versatility Ranch Horse team is a recognized club/organization at CSU and is in the process of becoming a Club Sport. There are two different levels of membership.
“Right now you can be a club member or a club/team member,” says Strama. “As a club member you can join in club activities, attend practices and meetings, socialize, help with shows, etc. As a team member you do all those things as well as ride and participate in practices and shows/clinics, etc. You must have your own horse to ride to be a team member, but you do not need a horse to ride to be a club member.”
Students with a variety of riding backgrounds have enjoyed participating as members of the CSU Versatility Ranch Horse team. “We have many novice riders who join the club and have never worked a cow, and have now through practice, clinics, and show experience moved up a level or two in their riding,” says Strama. “I think students really enjoy this sport because it is so rounded and versatile. Having the opportunity to compete in four classes gives students a chance to work on many areas of their riding. Many equine activities are limited to one area of expertise, and it is great to go to a show and have four chances to show your hard work off. Also, anyone can join and work on all the classes since there are three levels of competition in the collegiate system (Novice, Limited Non Pro, and Non Pro) that all work toward the level of competition seen in the Quarter Horse Association. The main difference between the levels of competition is the amount of cattle work that is performed.”
To join the club, it currently costs $15 per semester for a club membership and $25 for a team membership. “As we grow and start to attend more shows, costs will increase,” says Strama. “Costs may increase if we want to have the chance to bring in more fresh cattle to work. Typically, our show entries are around $60, and through support about half the cost as a club. Supplemental is the gas cost to practices and shows.”
Prospective students who are interested in participating in a club such as the CSU Versatility Ranch Horse team will, not surprisingly, need to go west. “Right now in the Rocky Mountian Region there are three competing schools: CSU, Laramie County Community College, and Northeastern Junior College,” says Strama. “As a club we have sent information/interest packets to other schools in the area to try and generate more participation, teams, and shows.”
Strama says that collegiate VRH competitions are also catching on in the state of Texas. Last year Texas Tech VRH held the first collegiate VRH Finals.
For more information on this unique club, please visit its website at www.ansci.colostate.edu.
Polo: Skidmore College Most people are familiar with the sport of polo; as far as horse sports go, it holds a particular mystique and captivates the interest of some of the equestrian world’s most affluent and elite. Actor Tommy Lee Jones is the “patron,” or sponsor, of the San Saba team, and most tabloid readers know that the British royal family is very involved in the sport—Princes Charles, William, and Harry all play.
What may be less familiar is the notion that polo as a sport is one of the most rapidly growing forms of collegiate equestrian competition, and local clubs provide outlets for players to continue to enhance and refine their skills even after they have completed their undergraduate studies.
For readers who are less familiar with the sport, polo is a team sport involving horses, mallets, and balls. The object of the game is to score goals against the opposing team by hitting the ball through the goal posts using a long mallet, usually made out of cane or graphite. Traditionally, the game is played on a grass field around 300 yards in length, which is two and a half times the length of an NFL football field.
Dan Haro, President of the Skidmore College Polo Club, says that their team is a competitive Division I level squad, in spite of having club sport status (as opposed to varsity status) at their school. “The club was founded in 1978 by Leighton Jordan and his friend Jed Lavitt,” says Haro. “The club has changed a lot in 32 years, having once held Varsity status, with full-time coaches, recruits and stabling at the school’s Van Lennep riding center.”
Currently, the team’s 45 members train at a facility 20 minutes from campus, where their current string is boarded. “All of our ponies and equipment are donated to the club, while our coaches generously volunteer their time,” says Haro.
The Skidmore Polo Club relies heavily upon the club executives (president, vice president, barn manager, treasurer and public relations team) to manage the day to day tasks of the club, including chores such as caring for the ponies, paying board, and raising money and awareness for the team.
One difference between traditional polo and intercollegiate polo is that college teams play arena polo. “These arenas are around 100 yards in length, with three players on each time,” says Haro. “Games generally consist of four six-minute periods called chukkers, or chukkas.”
Haro says that riders come to their team with a variety of riding backgrounds. “Our slogan we say at the Club Fair is ‘if you can stay on, you can play polo’,” says Haro. “Most of our riders on the team come from varying levels of equitation; from those who have competed at the highest “AA” shows, grand prix, fox hunting, eventing, to those that casually trail ride or take lessons. Intermediate riding skills definitely help in learning to play polo, but a handful of students learned to ride with the team. Only two people on the team had played polo before coming to Skidmore.”
Collegiate riders participating in the sport are attracted for different reasons. “Polo is an awesome combination of horses and a team sport,” says Haro. “There is also a lot of adrenaline involved, since it is a contact sport and you can end up traveling at very high speeds.”
Haro says that horses can canter up to around 17 miles per hour during a match and experienced players who gallop their horses can reach speeds over 30 miles per hour.
At Skidmore, men and women practice together but in competition they ride separately. The team competes at tournaments throughout the year, notably the Bill Fields Invitational Championship in the fall and intercollegiate regionals and nationals in the spring. Other colleges with polo teams that regularly compete against Skidmore include Yale, Cornell, UConn, Harvard and UMass, but it is popular across the country.
Haro notes that polo is so popular worldwide that there are many other variants emerging, aside from arena and field polo. Beach and snow polo are becoming popular amongst equestrians, and more exotic versions such as elephant or camel polo exist. “They say polo is the sport of kings,” says Haro. “But we like to say the sport of kings and crazy college kids.”
College is an exciting time of new opportunities for student equestrians. Many programs are open to riders of all backgrounds and majors and present a unique chance to try something totally new or different. Riders who are introduced to such sports in college make lifelong friends as well as learn new skills to take forward with them no matter where their careers may lead them.
If you are in the process of selecting a college, the existence of an extracurricular team such as those profiled in this article may help you to finalize your decision. Be sure to check on any prerequisites or other requirements for eligibility, and then get ready to take on a new endeavor!