Seventeen-year-old Ransome Rombauer believes that her experience at Interscholastic Equestrian Association competitions was a big help in her recent victory at the U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Talent Search Finals–West. In the final round of that competition, the top four contenders ride a course first on their own horses, then three more times on each others’ mounts.
In IEA jumping competition, middle- and high-school students ride unfamiliar horses and have minimal warm-up time. Though the IEA fences are 2-foot-6, compared to the Talent Search’s 3-foot-11, Ransome says the IEA catch-riding experience helped her to quickly assess each mount at the Talent Search Finals in September and compete with confidence.
The northern California rider, also the Leading Rider at the 2015 IEA National Championships last spring, is not alone in praising the impact of IEA participation. Riders, trainers, parents and sport advocates find much to love about the program that extends well beyond its influence on “Big Eq” success.
The first is affordability because horse ownership is not required to participate. The next is that the catch-riding nature of the competition rewards horsemanship over horsepower and the team aspect fosters camaraderie and cooperation. Plus, its similarities to collegiate equestrian competition make it a pipeline for continued participation in the sport.
The organization, which began in 2002, shares its affordability and accessibility mission and most of its format with the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. One example is that competition hosts provide horses and tack, and mounts are determined by random draw.
Membership, which is open to students in grades six through 12, has swelled steadily over the years. It passed the 12,000 mark this season and is projected to double in the next decade. The IEA consists of teams formed by private or public schools and those based at training barns with students from different schools and/or different barns.
The IEA has 10 zones across the country that conform to the U.S. Hunter/Jumper Association zones. Especially strong in the Northeast and increasingly along all parts of the Eastern Seaboard, participation in the organization can be contagious.
Virginia hunter/jumper trainer Beth Linton was inspired to start an IEA team after her daughter, Tayloe Clements, had a terrific experience as a member of the Rose Mount Farm team in Spotsylvania, Virginia.
After Tayloe went on to ride for the IHSA team at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, Beth wanted her students at Woodpecker Farm in Woodford, Virginia, to have the IEA experience. The Woodpecker squad started in 2012 and earned its first Nationals berth this past spring. Member Bobbie Jo Adsit won the Varsity Open Over Fences Individual Champion title in 2015 along with other top ribbons.
Beth hoped to keep the talented Bobbie Jo on the Woodpecker team, but she couldn’t get too upset when Bobbie Jo’s mother, nearby Virginia trainer Billie Jo Adsit, felt inspired to start her own IEA team this season.
That’s just how things go once people get a taste of the IEA experience.
Emily David has been involved with the IEA since its inception. She began by coaching a team for the Grier School, a private boarding school in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and is a past president and longtime board member. She is now administrator of IEA’s biggest zone, Zone 2 (New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) and co-coach of barn-based team Almost Famous Farm in State College, Pennsylvania.
Zone 2’s growth exemplifies the IEA ideal. The horse industry is multifaceted and so is the composition of Zone 2’s membership, Emily says. “I have teams representing high-end, fancy barns in the Bronx to teams in western Pennsylvania that are composed of riders from small, local barns and 4-H kids. I have a team in upstate New York, where the majority of kids compete on the Arabian circuit, but they’ve put together an IEA team.”
The Almost Famous team, which Emily coaches along with Lindsay Galloway, includes USEF Hunt Seat Medal and Maclay contenders as well as U.S. Pony Club riders. Some of the latter have no desire to participate in regular hunter/jumper shows but they want to be on an IEA team.
“We have really made the horse shows feel like everybody is welcome,” Emily says. The density and diversity of equestrian activity throughout Zone 2 make for especially fertile ground for IEA growth. She believes its model will evolve in other parts of the country as IEA grows.
The influx of Pony Club and 4-H kids and their blending with A-circuit riders is increasing the enjoyment factor of the sport, Emily continues. “They are bringing more of a fun atmosphere to it and the big, successful teams are giving off the vibe that everybody can do this, which was the original vision of the IEA.”
The appeal of being on a team with friends and/or schoolmates is another contributor to IEA growth. In the context of high-school sports, equestrian is a lone-wolf activity, usually creating separate sets of friends, school and horse-related, with little overlap. “In our zone, I’m starting to see more kids saying, ‘I want to go ride with the team down the street because a lot of my school friends are on it,’” Emily says.
In the beginning, IEA teams were almost exclusively from private schools with their own horses and riding program. Today, the vast majority of IEA’s 650 teams are based at training barns, raising the prospect that trainers/coaches might fear losing a client if a student were to switch teams. But many riders seems to be switching teams and creating their own teams to be with more of their school friends, Emily reports. “Trainers in our zone no longer seem to feel threatened by it.”
In fact, Emily says many trainers have told her that IEA has increased their business. “I’m hearing more people say this is a way to get the people who can’t afford the A-show circuit to do more in their barn,” she says. Occasional lessoners often step up the frequency to be competitive for their IEA team.
Out west, the IEA is just beginning to make inroads. Combined, Zones 8 (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah) and 10 (California, Nevada and Hawaii) represent approximately 900 riders, compared to Zone 2’s nearly 2,200. Zone 9, encompassing the Northwest, is currently not active.
Top southern California hunter/jumper trainer Jim Hagman was quick to embrace the IEA concept at his Elvenstar program. He recognized it as “something I would have loved to do as a kid” and a good fit for the changing preferences of young riders and their families. In the recession’s aftermath, Jim sees families less willing or able to spend so much on the A-rated circuit. Plus, the nonriding time demands on those aspiring to top colleges has reduced hours spent at the barn for many.
“We were looking for ways to serve the needs of our clients and for programs to offer this new generation of parents,” he explains. Elvenstar now hosts four IEA teams alongside its A-circuit training program, riding academy and U.S. Pony Clubs Riding Center.
Of IEA’s appeal, Jim says, “You are not automatically the leader of the pack because you have the best horse. It’s a team sport and it gives a kid with talent a chance to compete in a national championship without spending so much money. It’s a perfect fit for our program.”
The 2016 IEA National Championships will take place April 20–24 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington with a special periodic staging of both Hunt Seat and Western together. (The Western Championship is usually held in conjunction with the National Reining Horse Association Derby in Oklahoma City.)
The championships are special for participants riding at all levels. Elvenstar student Kayla Lott has won on the A-circuit’s biggest stages and competed in four IEA Nationals. She likes the fact that “hard work shows in your ability to handle different horses and look good doing it” and that sportsmanship is a “huge deal” because “many people work their butts off to make sure everyone has a great experience.”
The College Connection
IEA participation creates a direct pipeline to collegiate riding opportunities. “It’s helped me a lot with college decisions,” relays Bobbie Jo. “I had a bunch of college coaches talk to me at the Nationals and several offered me scholarships.”
Even though the National Collegiate Equestrian Association’s competition format is a little different than the IEA’s, NCEA coaches have their eye on IEA riders, too. “The first thing IEA participation tells you is that they have a lot of experience riding different horses,” says Boo Major, coach of the 2015 NCEA Varsity championship squad from the University of South Carolina. “You know you’ll be able to say, ‘Here’s your horse. Off you go!’ And they won’t need 25 jumps to figure the horse out.”
A rider like Ransome Rombauer with success at both the big equitation heights and in IEA competition is a “no brainer” hot prospect, Boo confirms. Beyond riding chops, the team experience of IEA is a “huge bonus,” she adds. “The reality is that equestrian is an individual sport, so a lot of it is learning how to be part of and to compete as a team.”
In collegiate competition, as in IEA, “sometimes you’re riding and sometimes you’re rooting. You need to be able to do both,” says Boo, who has seen a significant increase in IEA teams throughout South Carolina at high schools and middle schools.
A Boon For the Sport
IEA co-founder Myron Leff says a doubling in membership size is forecast within the next decade, possibly within five years. Much of that will come from west of the Mississippi, he predicts, and the majority generated by word of mouth.
That’s good news for the sport as a whole, says USEF Chief Marketing Officer Colby Connell. The IEA and other competitive programs serving high-school and middle-school riders help toward the federation’s goal of getting and, equally important, keeping young riders participating actively in the sport. The USHJA concurs. It recently strengthened its partnership with the IEA by adding a scholastic membership category for IEA members, giving them access to USHJA’s education programs.
In the past, Colby observes, many riders quit when they hit high school because equestrian wasn’t something they could do within the context of their school. “That’s changed a lot in the last 10 years,” Colby says.
IEA and its counterparts don’t make it any easier for public schools to take on the liability and logistical challenges of a varsity team, but they do enable students to pursue their sport on behalf of their school. “It’s bridging that gap,” Colby says. In many cases, participating students are getting recognition at school for their accomplishments, too. Space for trophies in gymnasium display cases and inclusion in school sports announcements and yearbooks are a few examples.
On a related note, applications for a varsity letter through the USEF’s High School Equestrian Athlete program have doubled to 4,200 in the last five years. The program allows students to track their time and accomplishments to earn the letter signifying a serious commitment to their sport.
Another contribution to the IEA’s growth is the feasibility of putting together a team. The organization provides guidelines and support and, typically, parents are happy to help. The time commitment is significant notes Virginia trainer Beth Linton. “With the scheduling and paperwork, it’s like having a second job.” Getting ready to host Woodpecker Farm’s first IEA show in the fall, Beth said it’s worth it. “I really miss it throughout the summer, and I’m really excited about the IEA getting underway this season.”
The Interscholastic Equestrian Association is the fastest-growing middle- and high-school equestrian program, but it’s not the only game in town.
In its fifth year, the Athletic Equestrian League (www.athletic equestrian.com) includes riders from fourth through 12th grade. Dartmouth equestrian coach Sally Batton founded it with the idea “that students be judged against a set of standards rather than against each other.”
In AEL competition, riders in a club each compete on the flat and over fences and are given numeric scores based on specific criteria. Over-fences classes are judged similarly to an equitation test. Points are earned for movements including a halt, change of direction and, at the upper levels, a hand gallop. Finally, there’s an unmounted practical test. Flat and jumping rounds are worth 40 percent each and the practical test counts for 20 percent of the overall score. Riders compete on the show host’s horses.
In addition to giving transparency to the judging, AEL scoring eliminates poor outcomes that can result when an overfull division is randomly divided. “Sometimes, just because of the way the sections worked out, you might get a winner who is the strongest of the weak,” Sally explains. “Or another section might have all the top riders in it.”
Emphasizing athleticism, the AEL does not require formal show attire. Riders wear team shirts and breeches with half chaps or boots.
Membership is approaching 200 riders, with teams throughout New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York. This year, there are two new AEL teams in California at the Stanford Red Barn Equestrian Center in Palo Alto. Teams may compete in both AEL and IEA.
High-school athletes in mainstream sports face a mind-boggling array of chances to learn about college sports possibilities, including scholarships, and be seen by college coaches. Their equestrian counterparts are emerging as high-school activity blossoms.
The College Preparatory Invitational Horse Show (www.col legeprepinvitational.com) brought the showcase concept to the equestrian world in 2010. In January 2015, the Florida event drew 150 riders and representatives from 30 colleges. The Florida edition takes place Jan. 15-–17, 2016, in West Palm Beach, and a West Coast edition debuts March 11–13, 2016, in Burbank, California.
Billed as an opportunity to discover and explore college options, the CPI invites riders to compete in collegiate-formatted competition—drawing an unfamiliar horse to compete over fences and on the flat in one of five equitation divisions—Novice (2-foot fences) to Advanced (3-foot fences). An educational fair includes various presentations and chances to speak directly with admissions officers and college coaches. Community service, fund-raising and scholarship opportunities are also part of the event.
The Junior Equestrian Festival (www.juniorequestrianfestival.com) debuted this fall as three days of competition, college-oriented presentations and general horsemanship clinics. Top hunter/jumper trainer Kip Rosenthal served as clinician, presenter and judge for the debut hunt-seat JEF competition, Oct. 9–11 in Fairfield, Connecticut.
An affiliate of the CPI, the IHSA and the USHJA, the JEF was created to “break the misconceptions about what it takes to ride in college,” says founder Jane DaCosta. The format is similar to the CPI, with the addition of a horsemanship clinic. The regional nature makes it an affordable option for those who live in the area.
Jane hopes to bring the hunt-seat event to the Midwest next year, and there is a Western edition set in January in Weirsdale, Florida.
An IHSA rider herself and now coach of the Metropolitan Equestrian IEA team in Brooklyn, New York, and IEA Zone 4 chairman, Jane says a big part of JEF’s mission is directing students’ focus to college and to the opportunities for riding-related scholarships available at many of the IHSA’s 425 member schools. “If these programs existed when I was in college, I’d have a lot less student loans than I did!”
IEA Fast Facts
• No need to own a horse to participate.
• Classes are offered in four ability levels: Beginner, Novice, Intermediate and Open. Any combination of ability levels on a team is permitted, but it is advantageous to have at least one rider in every class to be competitive.
• Riders in grades six through eight are eligible for middle-school teams while riders in grades nine through 12 compete at the high-school level.
• Points are tracked for individual riders and for overall team accomplishments. Individuals and teams earn points to qualify for regional, zone and national finals.
• Students ride horses that are furnished by the host barn and chosen by random draw. The use of personal tack is not allowed and limited schooling is permitted.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.