File 612Ask anyone what he or she thinks of when it comes to sports teams at UMass, and you will undoubtedly get answers like football, basketball or lacrosse. Although these teams do make up a huge part of the athletics at this university, there is a lesser-known team, the University of Massachusetts Equestrian Team, which has consistently been competitive with the former national champions of their sport, Mount Holyoke College. The UMass Equestrian Team is a force to be reckoned with among New England collegiate riding teams.
The Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) is a national organization of 300 colleges and universities that have teams competing in equestrian sports. Western Massachusetts makes up Zone 1, Region 3 of the IHSA, which includes thirteen schools (University of Massachusetts, Smith College, Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, Williams College, Clark University, Becker College, Springfield College, College of the Holy Cross, American International College, Elms College, Westfield State College, Landmark College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts). There are approximately four horse shows held in region three per semester, and these are hosted by the UMass Hadley Farm, the Mount Holyoke Equestrian Center, Smith’s Fox Meadow Farm, and Amherst College.
File 613The biggest difference between intercollegiate riding and competing at other kinds of horse shows is that through the IHSA, teams travel to host schools and ride the horses provided there. Also, riders are not allowed to warm up the horses at all before entering the show ring. As any IHSA competitor will tell you, it is very challenging to ride an unknown horse in a show situation! But because it asks so much of the rider, it’s a valuable experience that can’t be found anywhere else.
Another distinctive aspect of riding with the IHSA is that the competitions are split up into to levels ranging in ability from the most novice to the most advanced rider. The challenge of being a highly competitive team is to have every division represented by riders that have skill and strength for their level. The five levels to intercollegiate riding, as devised by the IHSA, are Walk-Trot, Beginner/Advanced Walk-Trot-Canter, Novice, Intermediate and Open. The Novice, Intermediate and Open divisions include both flat and jumping classes, while the first two divisions are designed for riders with less experience, and therefore they only ride on the flat. Points are gained when a team’s riders win ribbons in their classes. A first place is seven points, second is five points, a third is four points, and so on down to sixth place, which is worth one point.
Although it is possible for riders to qualify for the regional, zone and national championships as individuals, the real excitement and camaraderie comes in the race for the leading team of the region. In order for a team to qualify for the zone finals, they must be in first place in their region, and at the zone championships, the top two placing schools move on to nationals. Traditionally in Region 3, UMass and Mount Holyoke have been neck-and-neck for the top placing team. Other highly competitive schools include Smith College, Williams College and Amherst College.
The UMass Equestrian Team is unique, being from the only large state school in the region. Although this means that we are not a varsity sport, it does give us a different advantage: many of the team members from UMass are Equine/Animal Science majors, and a good number of those students are concentrating in Equine Studies. As a result, our team has extremely strong horsemanship. However, the true strength of the team comes from correct basic equestrian skills that each rider is taught through the well-rounded UMass riding program.
Every UMass team member must be enrolled in a university riding class in order to be eligible to try out for the team. This includes a flat lesson and a jumping lesson every week, as well as keeping a journal and completing eight work hours on the farm per semester. The backbone of the instruction taught through the UMass riding program is in correct flatwork, and this is supplemented by the enforcement of a balanced seat and the importance of strong jumping skills. The educated base from which all the riders at this university advance in turn leads to good riding and communication skills with the horses.