What is the IHSA?
The IHSA is the oldest and largest nationally competitive college riding program in the United States. The IHSA was the first to make equestrian sports part of the college experience for male and female students in a manner that is fun, affordable, educational, and competitive. IHSA college and university team participation is represented through a variety of programs including varsity athletics, academic departments, and club sports. The IHSA boasts over 10,000 members in 47 states and Canada.
The IHSA welcomes men and women of all riding levels and offers individual and team competition in hunter set equitation, Western horsemanship, reining, and ranch riding at more than 400 member colleges and universities. Divisions range from the Walk/Trot Division for beginners to the Open Division for the more experienced riders. Each year, thousands of IHSA riders of all skill levels compete individually and as teams at regional, zone, and national championship levels.
Membership in IHSA allows college students to compete at horse shows regardless of their experience or financial status. Students compete in beginner through advanced divisions with suitable, provided horses, eliminating the expense of horse ownership and many of the related costs of the sport. Furthermore, through the Intercollegiate Equestrian Foundation (IEF), IHSA members are eligible for multiple need and merit-based scholarships.
IHSA offers valuable hands-on experience and professional development in multiple facets of the equine industry. Many IHSA teams participate in service projects, giving back to their communities, Through the IHSA, students enhance their college experience and develop skills that help to build successful careers. Interestingly, numerous Olympic riders including Greg Best and Beezie Madden are alumni of IHSA.
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Who can compete?
As mentioned previously, IHSA welcomes beginners through advanced riders in the hunter seat and Western disciplines to compete individually or on a team. Experience levels range from those who have never had a chance to take up riding but have had a love for both equines and competition, to those who have successfully competed in higher-level equitation and jumpers. Men and women compete with and against each other in the IHSA format. Even alumni who competed in the IHSA as undergraduates are eligible to compete if Alumni classes are offered.
Where and when do you compete?
With more than 400 teams, the IHSA is divided into eight zones organized geographically. Every zone is then divided into regions, and each region ranges from approximately 5 to 15 teams. Teams within a region compete against each other in 2 to 10 horse shows per school year. Competitors and teams with high point standings can qualify for post season competition in the spring on the zone and national levels.
College horse shows are like “meets”, with all teams from the region invited to compete against each other simultaneously. At the shows, horses and tack are furnished by the host college. Each rider is randomly assigned a horse through a “draw” where their mounts have been appropriately matched with the skill level of the class. Competitors are not permitted to ride their own horses. Riders are given very limited details regarding their new mount. A short description may provide details such as rider should carry a crop, a horse needs set up for leads, a horse needs spurs, etc.
Each horse is warmed-up by a non-competing rider while student competitors observe to learn any particular attributes of each potential horse. A rider is expected to be able to ride any horse that is considered to be at the level that they are in. Competing riders are not permitted to warm-up their assigned horse except at the walk.
There are classes designed on specific experience levels, from Beginner Walk-Trot to Open, in four/five disciplines — hunter equitation, equitation over fences, western horsemanship, reining, and ranch riding. To summarize, riders compete as individuals and teams in English riding (hunter seat equitation, aka, ‘flat,’ and over fences) or Western riding (Western horsemanship, reining, and ranch riding).
There are eight hunter seat levels for a total of nine classes including: Introductory, Pre-Novice, Novice, Limit on the flat and over fences, Intermediate on the flat and over fences, and Open on the flat and over fences. Alumni on the flat and Alumni over fences may also be offered.
For the Hunter Seat over fences divisions, the Limit division jumps are set at 2’-2’3”, Intermediate jumps at 2’6”-2’9” and Open jumps at 2’9”-3’. The Limit courses tend to be very straight forward while the Open courses require more challenging patterns such as bending lines or rollback turns.
In Western Horsemanship there are six levels: Beginner Western Horsemanship, Rookie A and B, Novice, Level I, Level II, Open and Open Reining. Alumni Horsemanship may also be offered. Add ranch riding.
Interestingly, riders may compete in either English riding or Western riding or BOTH!
The rider is judged solely on their equitation (the art and practice of horsemanship and horse riding) and not the “skill” of the horse – the format fairly tests the horsemanship of the athletes. One of the goals of the IHSA is to provide all riders with an equal chance of performing well in their class; by not allowing riders to compete on horses that they are familiar with, judges can accurately evaluate the ability of the rider to effectively control the horse and ride well.
Individual ribbons correspond to points that combine for a team score. Each team can only have one “point rider” per division and the lowest score on their card is dropped. A cumulative team score of 49 points for Hunter Seat and 42 points for Western would be a “perfect” card. Points are accumulated on both an individual and a team basis throughout regular and post-season shows.
Full-time undergraduate students of member colleges or alumni who competed in the IHSA as undergraduates are eligible to compete throughout the year with a point system. There are end of year competitions for both teams and individuals that bring together the top performers from the zones.
Specifically, the top riders and teams in each region participate in Regional Finals and then advance to the IHSA Zone Finals (hunt seat) or the IHSA Semi-Finals (Western). The top competitors and teams at these two Finals qualify for the annual IHSA National Championship Horse Show (Nationals). The winning national champion team in the hunter seat division is awarded with the Collegiate Cup and the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Trophy is the prize for the top Western division team.
Individual regional high point riders are eligible for the National Individual Championship. The US Equestrian/Cacchione Cup is awarded to the National Individual hunter seat high-point rider. The AQHA Cup goes to the top Western rider and the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) awards a Morrison Bronze trophy to the winner of the Individual Open Reining Horsemanship class winner.
Teams may be student-run club teams or part of a college’s athletic program. Some teams may be primarily run by students while others may have a faculty advisor or an official school coach. Many colleges with degreed programs in equine-related fields have school supported IHSA teams and offer athletic scholarships for riding.
If you are interested in horses, you should definitely investigate the opportunities to ride for the IHSA school that you are interested in! You may or may not need to try out for a team – this typically occurs at the beginning of the fall semester and varies by school. Many times, try-outs are not required. Team members are usually required to practice with the team at a nearby farm by lessoning on suitable school horses however; some campuses have equestrian facilities on-site! Most teams have scheduled meetings and many teams also participate in an array of activities including various social events and philanthropic efforts outside the show ring. Some teams require that you “show” as a member of the team and some do not – many times, participation at shows is optional but encouraged.
Financial obligations can vary by school. Some schools subsidize the equestrian club/program in some way (paying for travel, etc.); otherwise the team is required to cover most of its costs. Lessons are typically an out of pocket cost as well as the fee to join the IHSA as a member. There can be some additional expenses related to joining an IHSA team as well so be sure to check with each school to access your financial commitment when considering joining a team.