For equestrians headed to college, the idea of uprooting and moving away from family, friends, and horses can be daunting. Sure, we can FaceTime our parents every time we’re homesick, but we might only see our horses every few months on breaks if they don’t come to school with us. For many, horses are a hobby and not in the college career plan, but for some an equine program at school is a requirement.
Regardless of your eventual career path, finding a horse community away from home can be a source of peace during the stress of college. If you’re a high school student looking at applying to colleges, here are some questions to ask yourself and potential colleges.
1. In what capacity do I want to engage with horses in college?
Do you plan to get a degree in Equine or Equestrian Studies, ride on an IHSA or NCEA team, find a place to board your horse, take riding classes, or just have a place to go hang out with horses or work? Do you want to minor in horses and major in a different field? These are important distinctions to make in deciding the criteria for schools you may want to apply to. Paying attention to all program options early on allows you to have flexibility and make an educated decision.
2. What will the cost be?
In addition to the expenses of a college education, not all collegiate riding teams are funded, which means you may have to pay for lessons, shows, and travel fees. Ask schools if their equestrian teams are considered varsity sports or club sports, find out about fundraising and cost, and assess your own financial status before committing.
3. What is the barn environment like?
Are you looking for a space that’s more competitive or relaxing? Is the team dynamic supportive, or does there seem to be a lot of tension? If possible, talk to students, barn workers, and coaches, and even attend a practice or show if possible to see for yourself what you can expect from the barn environment.
4. What opportunities are there for first-year students?
In some programs, first-years do not have the opportunity to compete or even practice with upperclassmen. Check with coaches or program directors so that you can go in with a clear set of expectations and not be disappointed.
5. Where is the equestrian center in relation to campus?
Is it on campus, within walking distance, or will you have to drive there? Does the school offer a shuttle to and from shows, practices, or classes, or are you responsible for your own transportation?
6. If you’re planning to bring your horse, what are the conditions of board?
Some programs offer free or reduced board if your horse is used in the program. Is there turnout available, and how is its use scheduled? Does the barn offer feeding options appropriate for your horse? Are there open ring times, separate arenas, trails, or other amenities you have access to? Ask about vet and farrier services if you are new to the area to assess your options before your horse needs them.
7. What do practice and show schedules look like?
Will you be expected to miss class for practices and shows, and if so, how much? Will you have options to adjust your practices around classes and work, or are they scheduled for you? How many times per week and how many hours are you expected to commit to spending at the barn? Having a handle on expected time commitment will help to make sure you don’t over-commit in your first year or get in over your head right away.
8. How individualized are the programs?
Do you have the option to do independent studies to achieve specific goals with your equestrian education? How large are practices? Are there any opportunities for private lessons and one-on-one learning? How large are average class sizes?
9. What academic resources are there for equestrians?
If you have to miss class for a show, does the school have a Center for Academic Success that can provide a space to make up tests or organize a tutor? What is the academic policy for athletes missing class (and, depending on the school’s designation, do equestrians count as athletes)?
10. What are current students’ favorite and least favorite aspects of the program?
Even if tours are available, try to talk to the equestrians hanging around at the barn if you can—their input is valuable, and you can also get a sense of the barn environment from who chooses to spend extra time there. Do they seem happy? Are the horses well-taken-care-of? Are current team members enthusiastic about riding? Do they have good things to say about the coaches?
Choosing a college to attend can be one of the most life-shaping decisions early in life, so making sure your top choice is the right fit can save a lot of headaches later on. Several schools may advertise an equestrian center and riding teams but not have dedicated equine programs of study, or vice versa, so research and visiting schools when possible is important to get a sense for what kind of environment and program will work best for you.
Haley will continue to share more adventures from the perspective of a collegiate equestrian! Keep an eye out for The Academic Equestrian weekly.
Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with a minor in Equine Business Management. She owns two Quarter Horse geldings, Cricket (“At Last an Invitation”) and Slide (“HH Slick N Slide”). Haley is a captain of the AU western equestrian team, competing in horsemanship, reining and hunt seat. She also loves trail riding.