Your Cheat Sheet to College Riding Teams

Want to ride on a team in college? Here’s how to get started.

If you’re a college-bound high school senior, you’ve probably already given yourself ulcers thinking about which schools you’re going to apply to–and which schools might reject you. If you’re the parent of a college-bound high school senior, you’ve got it just as bad–if not worse, because you’re probably the one footing the bill of college trips and application fees. Throw the prospect of collegiate riding into the mix, and you might as well buy stock in GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of all the Tums you and your family will be consuming over the next few months.

There are a multitude of options for students who want to continue riding in college, and riding on a team is just one of them. However, it does happen to be one of the more confusing options. Here’s our guide to get you started:

National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA)

(formerly known as Varsity Equestrian)

Equestrian competition is not currently an NCAA sport like football, lacrosse or soccer–but the National Collegiate Equestrian Association’s mission is to bring it to that level one day. Currently there are 22 schools offering Division I and Division II competitions in equitation, reining and Western horsemanship, but 40 schools are needed to bring equestrian competition from an emerging NCAA sport to an official one.

NCEA riders are considered student athletes and are subject to similar rules and regulations that NCAA athletes are. Riders must maintain an amateur status (winning only an amount equal to their show costs), and there are specific rules on how and when recruiters and prospects may contact each other.

How to get started: NCEA is your most competitive option for riding on a college team, so preparation can begin as early as freshman year of high school–by riding as many horses as you can to gain experience, keeping good records of all shows and clinics you attend, and keeping your grades high. Throughout your high school years you can visit as many colleges as you would like, as long as you or your family pay the costs of travel.

However, no matter how good you are, no college coach is going to beg you to be on their team until you make the initial contact (they are prohibited from doing so by NCEA bylaws). In your junior year, you may start contacting coaches by letter or email to show your interest, and over the summer you may attend NCEA summer riding camps and start putting together your application video, riding resume, and work/education resume. To officially show your interest in becoming an NCEA athlete, you must register with the NCAA Eligibility Center and answer the online Prospective Equestrian student-athlete Questionnaires for whichever schools you are interested in. During your senior year, official recruitment may begin, which includes making official visits paid for by the school if a coach is interested in you. You can find a full description of the recruitment process here.

And check out the full list of schools with NCEA teams here.

Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA)


Flickr: Five Furlongs/ CC

The IHSA is the largest intercollegiate riding organization, with college teams traveling to other schools to compete in equitation on the flat and over fences, as well as reining and Western Horsemanship.  IHSA encourages a level playing field by assigning horses at random to competitors so there is no “home court advantage.”  Riders of all levels can participate and contribute to the team score, since there are classes ranging from Walk-Trot to Open. There’s a lot more to it than competing, though, including lessons, practice rides, fundraisers, and (depending on the team and where horses are kept) splitting up barn chores.

But…how do you actually find a school with a team that’s a good fit for you?

The important fact to remember about all of this is that academics come first, so you should make sure you will be happy with your school choice even if you don’t make the IHSA team your first year. The level of competitiveness varies by school, so you’ll have to contact the team coach and riders or visit a lesson or show to see what the vibe is like for different teams. Every school’s barn situation is a little different too, which can make it difficult to compare. Some keep their horses on campus, while others contract with a local instructor off-campus and team members carpool to practice.

You can find a list of contact info for all schools with IHSA teams here and past team placings at IHSA Nationals here.

More Intercollegiate Disciplines:

Intercollegiate Eventing League (IEL)


Flickr: John Harwood/ CC

Until very recently, eventing clubs on campus served mostly as a way for students who were already eventers to get together. But Clemson and UC Davis pioneered intercollegiate eventing with the creation of the West Coast Collegiate Eventing League in 2009, which expanded to the east coast and became the Intercollegiate Eventing League in 2013.

It’s an uphill battle. Event fees are not cheap, even if you’re not on a college student budget, and there is currently no formal “musical horses” system like there is for IHSA, so many collegiate eventers must lease or own horses, though some teams have school horses.

 Despite the challenges, more and more schools are getting involved, including: University of Alabama, Clemson, UC Davis, University of Georgia, High Point University, Oregon State, Otterbein University, University of South Carolina Aiken, Wilson College,

Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA)

Like the IHSA, the Intercollegiate Dressage Association has a system where host schools provide the horses for competition. Riders have a set amount of time to warm up, and then compete in teams of four at Introductory, Lower Training Level (tests 1 and 2), Upper Training Level (tests 3 and 4) and First Level.

Find a list of IDA member schools here.

Intercollegiate/Interscholastic Polo


Flickr: Paul/ CC

Intercollegiate/interscholastic polo tournaments are played on host school horses or on players’ personal horses. The gameplay is modified into “split strings” where teams will switch horses in the second and fourth chukkers to lower the cost of transportation. The start of polo season at each school varies, but tournaments run from February to April.  I/I regular season begins as early as September. Club members pay dues of $100 as well as annual U.S. Polo Association dues.

Find a list of I/I polo schools here.

Intercollegiate Saddle Seat Riding Association (ISSRA)


Flickr: Selena N/ CC

The ISSRA is also a fairly new organization founded in 2008 that allows experienced saddle seat riders and newbies to compete IHSA-style on borrowed horses of the host school.

Currently Eastern Kentucky University, Northern Kentucky UniversityUniversity of Kentucky, University of Louisville, University of Illinois, Morehead State and Marshall University have ISSRA teams.

National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA)

The NIRA offers competion in saddle bronc riding, bare back riding, bull riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling, team roping, barrel racing, breakaway roping, and goat tying for college students taking at least 12 credits.

You can find contact information for NIRA schools by region here.

If you want to compare and contrast your options easily, College Riding 101 also has several excellent resources for potential collegiate riders exploring their options.

NOTE: While riding scholarships for NCEA, IHSA, NIRA and for up-and-coming riders in general do exist, they are generally for modest amounts unlikely to cover full college expenses. Remember, you’re at college to learn, not just to ride!

Leave a Comment


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *