More than Matching Jackets: What it takes to be a NCAA Varsity Equestrian Athlete
Maegan Gossett interviews Baylor University student and top intercollegiate rider Andrea Schweiker about being on “the team.”
I met Andrea Schweiker when I was a freshman at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. We immediately had two things in common: We were both on the equestrian team and we were both stranded on a sprawling Texas university with no car. Horses were our instant bond, but there is nothing quite like the shared plight of hitching rides to the barn that really cemented our friendship.
Four years have passed since then, and Andrea is finishing up her senior year at Baylor with a school win at the Big 12 Championship in 2010 and a third place finish for the Englishteam at the Varsity Equestrian National Championship in 2011. Sometime during those years, I found myself back in Tennessee, pretending to major in economics and wishing more than once that I had stuck it out at Baylor. I often wonder what the difference was between Andrea and I. I didn’t make it as a student athlete, whereas Andrea excelled. Ever since the day I packed my bags for Tennessee, I’ve wanted to know exactly what it takes to make it four grueling, sweating, Texas years on a NCAA varsity equestrian team.
Andrea Schweiker grew up in Denton, Texas, knowing she always wanted to ride on a collegiate level. Coming from an eventing background, she was not the typical candidate for Baylor’s English team, which normally receives its riders from a hunter/jumper or dressage background. Instead, Andrea was the best of both worlds since her dressage experience prepared her for the equitation on the flat component of equestrian teams and her cross-country and show jumping experience gave her the skill to compete for Baylor’s jumping team as well. Andrea summarizes her impressive resume by saying, “I spent most of my high school years competing all around the states and represented Area V at the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships in 2006. I also exercised at a jumper barn to give me experience on lots of different horses, which is an essential skill for riding on a college team.”
For those less versed on the workings of a college equestrian team, there are two teams: English and Western. The English side has riders who specialize on the flat and a different set of riders to jump. The Western side has a set of riders who show horsemanship, which is similar to English’s equitation on flat, where a pattern is performed and the rider is judged on his or her ability. Another group of western riders show in reining. At competitions, two colleges normally go head to head. Two riders from each team will ride one horse. Whoever rides the horse better, wins. It’s all very simple. That is until you throw in about 60 riders per college, 30-something horses, timed warm-ups, scored rides, judges, coaches, and all that goes into getting one rider and one horse through one ride. Then it starts to sound a whole lot like… football. Except way better.
Of course the first step to riding in college is getting into college. For many, the recruiting process can seem daunting and intimidating.
“For me, the recruiting process was really simple. Some riders get ‘scouted’, but others (like me) have to plant the seed themselves,” Andrea says. “The key to an easy recruitment is knowing the NCAA rules and requirements. Your junior year of high school you need to get cleared by the NCAA and start sending out your riding resume and video to potential schools. Then comes the unofficial visit and the official visit your senior year. Most importantly, stay eligible! You don’t want to get stuck without enough credits to graduate or have your amateur status questioned. I got everything done on time and signed with Baylor the fall of my senior year, so it was smooth sailing from there!”
I asked Andrea what advice she would give to young people looking to ride for a college team. “Start early,” she responded. “The best thing to do is to keep your options open. I sent out my video to 10 schools and only got responses from half of them. Luckily for me, Baylor was one of them and also among my top choices. With NCAA Equestrian getting more and more popular, the competition for spots is crazy. You really need to be on your game, but if you don’t get signed, you can still try out.”
Riding for such a competitive school like Baylor can have its pros and cons. Andrea talks about some of the perks, “I love the freebies: free team attire, free lessons with great coaches, a free fitness coach, just to name a few! Not to mention all the academic bonuses. We have a great team of advisors that get us into all the right classes with the best professors and they keep a close eye to make sure our grades are where they need to be. If you’re struggling, there is free tutoring for any classes you might need.”
It is not all fun and free stuff. Andrea explains that it can be a huge time commitment, especially for riders on the show team. There are early (and I mean early!) morning workouts, yoga once a week, banquets, team meetings, speakers and barn day.
Andrea describes Baylor’s unique barn day as, “Once a week we divide up into groups and do barn chores like mucking stalls and cleaning tack. We take a lot of pride in our facility and our horses being nicely presented.”
It wouldn’t be a team without the competitions, especially for a school as competitive as Baylor. Most competitions are on Fridays and/or Saturdays, and there is traveling involved. With all these obligations, it is hard to imagine how Andrea or any of the riders ever make it to class. “Our coaches do their best to schedule around our classes, but you need to be flexible. We try not to miss class, but sometimes it is unavoidable,” Andrea says.
Just like the girl I met four years ago, Andrea finds the silver lining. “Being on the team is like having a part-time job, but at least our ‘job’ consists of riding horses!”
I asked Andrea what the best part of being on the team was for her. “The best part is that the majority of my friends I met through the team. We are a close group. Without the team, I think I would be a total recluse!”
And the worst? “Umm… 6 A.M. workouts! And the compliance office is annoying. There are a lot of rules to keep track of!”
Andrea describes Baylor’s huge win at Big 12’s in 2010 by saying, “It was a really close match and all of our team, both English and Western, rallied together for the win. Seeing us come together as one team made all the difference.” Therein lies what had eluded me four years ago, and is the answer to my question. To make it on an NCAA equestrian team is to realize you ride for exactly that–a team. For me, riding has always been an individual pursuit, something I escape to and find self-fulfillment in. This is also the exact reason I crashed and burned as a student athlete. For Andrea and for anyone interested in collegiate equestrian teams, I believe it takes not only the desire to be a better rider as an individual, but also the realization you ride to better the team.
Photo used with permission from Andrea Schweiker.
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