Team Up!—A Guide to Choosing NCEA or IHSA

By Terise Cole

Intercollegiate riding allows college students to continue competing during the school year and transforms an individual activity into a team sport. We tracked down what prospective students need to know about the two largest intercollegiate riding associations—the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association and the National Collegiate Equestrian Association.

How it all Started

It’s 1967 and 18-year-old Robert “Bob” Cacchione, United States Equestrian Team frontman Jack Fritz, and their riding clubs are running a horse show with $200 from Fairleigh Dickinson University—the first intercollegiate horse show. Consisting of three divisions and rented horses randomly drawn from a hat, the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) was born. “I created this association for two reasons,” says Cacchione, the President and founder of IHSA. “I really was not that concerned about your riding ability because we opened it up for walk-trot all the way up to Medal Maclay riders. And I did not care [about] financial background. Everybody gets a chance to ride and I wanted to give them the opportunity to not only learn how to ride, but also the possibility to learn how to horse show.”

Flash forward to 2002 when the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Committee on Women’s Athletics implemented equestrian as an emerging sport for women and the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA), formerly called Varsity Equestrian, was formed. “The NCEA is the organization responsible for oversight of NCAA Equestrian until the sport reaches championship status,” explains NCEA Executive Director, Dr. Leah Fiorentino. “The NCEA was founded in the early 2000s when a small group of equestrian team coaches examined alternative competition format options for collegiate equestrian.”

Now, almost 50 years later, the IHSA has evolved what began with two teams from a single college into over 10,000 riders in 400 colleges competing in hunt seat equitation, western horsemanship, and reining. “This is no longer a ‘Bob Cacchione operation,’” laughs Cacchione. “This took a while, it took a lot of people, and I am very proud of IHSA.”

After a close call with equestrian almost being dropped from the NCAA in Division II schools, the NCEA now has 18 Division I and four Division II schools and equestrian is here to stay. “There was a vote at the NCAA Convention and the member institutions voted to retain equestrian so there is no negative movement—equestrian is going to stay on the NCAA list of emerging sports. We are very excited about that,” says Fiorentino.

How It Works

NCEA teams can compete in two formats, head-to-head or ability-class, while IHSA teams only compete in the ability-class format. The head-to-head competition format features a head-to-head, meaning only two teams compete against one another at a single show, consisting of both hunt seat and western. With only one division for all riders, there are four classes at a single competition—Hunt Seat Equitation Over Fences, Hunt Seat Equitation on the Flat, Western Horsemanship, and Western Reining.

Each team selects four or five of their athletes to ride in each class for a total of 16 to 20 riders per show. The riders from each team compete on the same horses that are selected in a random draw for their class. Riders are allowed to watch their assigned horse warm up and are given four minutes of mounted practice, or four warm-up fences, before beginning.

The competition consists of a pattern or test depending on the class and the highest scoring rider on each horse receives a point for their team. “For over fences, the judge scores the class like a normal horse show, from zero to 100. The flat classes are like dressage, the rider performs 9 maneuvers that can earn a score from 1-10 plus an overall position score,” explains Delaware State University sophomore, Hayley Anderson. “Both western classes start with a score of 70 and they also have nine movements and an overall. They receive a number from -1 to +1 for each maneuver and the total is figured into the final score.”

The IHSA runs their ability-class format shows with a minimum of three colleges competing and separates the hunt seat shows from the western. Each team selects a number of riders for each class depending on the hosting team’s allowance, which is usually dependant on the amount of horses the host has available, and denotes one point rider for each class.

Hunt seat shows have a total of five equitation divisions—Walk-Trot, Walk-Trot-Canter, Novice, Intermediate, and Open—that make at least nine classes. Novice, Intermediate, and Open all have both flat and fences counterparts while the Walk-Trot-Canter division offers a sub-division for beginners.

Western shows have five horsemanship divisions—Beginner, Intermediate I and II, Novice, Advanced, and Open—and one Open Reining class. A rider’s division is determined by filling out a required form at the beginning of the rider’s first IHSA season.

At both Hunt Seat and Western IHSA competitions, horses for each class are drawn at random and the riders watch all the horses warm up before finding out their assigned horse—no practice time is allowed. Classes are judged and placed as regular horse show with flat and horsemanship classes ridden on the rail, fences classes set to a course, and reining performing a pattern.

Placings are awarded from 1-6 in each class with each placing resembling a set amount of points. The number of points that the point rider receives goes towards the team’s day-end total and each rider accumulates their own individual points throughout the year to qualify for regional competition.

Rules and Regulations

NCEA teams must adhere to NCAA rules, therefore, prospective athletes must comply with NCAA eligibility standards and register with the NCAA Eligibility Center. This begins in the student’s freshman year by ensuring that they are on track to take the required 16 core classes throughout high school, keep their grade point average above a 3.0, and receive SAT and ACT scores that match that grade point average on the NCAA’s sliding scale.

Next comes recruitment and contacting college teams, both which come with many guidelines that both coaches and riders must follow. Most NCAA equestrian colleges have recruiting questionnaires on their athletic sites for prospective students to complete at any time and riders may contact coaches after starting their freshman year of high school.

The best way to contact a college coach is to start reaching out to him or her during your freshman or sophomore years. If a student wishes to speak directly to a coach, the most effective method is by calling them. Coaches are only allowed to speak directly to recruits by answering the phone when being contacted.  While reaching out to coaches, students should patiently wait for a response,  as coaches are not permitted to reply to phone calls or emails until after September 1 of the student’s junior year, and may elect to respond through a trainer instead of reaching out directly to a student. During junior year of high school, students may begin receiving recruiting materials and during senior year, students may go on visits supported by the college.

According to Fiorentino, one of the biggest misunderstandings about NCEA prospective students’ is about their amateur status. “Riders are able to receive prize money as long as it does not exceed their yearly expense. That has been a major misconception,” clarifies Fiorentino. “All junior riders who win prize money simply need to keep track of that and report that to the NCAA.”

The IHSA only requires the prospective athlete to be a full-time undergraduate student and in good academic standing. There are no recruitment guidelines or restrictions on a rider’s professional-amateur status and contact between coaches and riders is allowed at any point in time. To determine what division the student will ride in, members must fill out a placement form at the beginning of their intercollegiate career as well as register as a member with IHSA. Prospective riders should be keeping track of their riding experience—including duration of instruction and show record—ahead of time, to anticipate what division they may be placed in.

It is important to note that both the teams associated with the NCEA and those that are affiliated with the IHSA can be reported to the NCAA as countable varsity teams at their university. If you’re thinking, “What? Isn’t the NCEA the equestrian equivalent of NCAA,” this is not exactly true. “All the teams at all of the different schools have the opportunity to call themselves NCAA Equestrian as long as the teams comply with the NCAA rules and are funded and sponsored by the athletic department at the institution,” explains Fiorentino. “It is up to the coaches to determine which format they would like to ride in. If they would like to ride in the head-to-head format or if they would like to ride in the ability-level format.”

According to Fiorentino, there has long been a misconception that the NCAA corresponds with the NCEA and has nothing to do with the IHSA. However, IHSA teams can, in fact, compete within the NCAA. “We are at a time where there is really not a difference, we are all NCAA equestrian [as long as they report their team to the NCAA and comply with NCAA rules].” If teams sponsored by their athletic department choose to report to the NCAA there is an added bonus: “when teams report into the NCAA that they have a team, there is a financial stipend that is awarded to that team from the NCAA.”

Decisions, Decisions!

“I don’t care if you ride for NCEA or IHSA, it is all irrelevant. The only thing that is really relevant is that you end up having a great experience with an equine partner,” states Peter Cashman, First Vice President of IHSA.

If there was one thing both associations agree on, it is that being an equestrian is all that matters. “The work of the NCEA complements the IHSA and provides a full range of equestrian opportunities within the collegiate arena,” says Fiorentino.

Cacchione shares this sentiment, stating, “in the IHSA’s opinion there is room for both. As long as it helps the college students going forward in their lives with equestrian, I’m all for it 100%.”

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