College is expensive, and when you add a horse and showing to the equation, the costs add up fast. However, it is possible to ride and show in college without spending a fortune. The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) was founded in 1967 on the principle that any college student should be able to participate in horse shows, regardless of financial status or riding level. Whether you’ve been riding all your life or have been waiting for the opportunity to try, attending a college with an IHSA team might be the right path for you. Here’s some background on the IHSA, how it works, and how you can get involved.
The IHSA began as a competition between two colleges, and today, more than 8,600 riders from more than 360 colleges and universities across the country are members of the organization. “The IHSA gives every rider the opportunity to ride, learn and compete,” says Bob Cacchione, IHSA founder and executive director.
When Cacchione went to college at Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, his parents told him that in order to afford tuition, he needed to stop riding, but he was determined. Although there was no existing riding program at the school, he founded a club of six riders. He and his five fellow club members went off campus to a county park, where Cacchione found a man with some horses and told him, “We’ll ride the horses, and I’ll instruct the riders for free.” Cacchione says word spread quickly, and the club soon grew to 40 members.
Upon seeing the club’s success, the university decided to create a one-credit equestrian physical education course. As an 18-year-old sophomore, Cacchione became the horseback riding instructor at the university and the youngest faculty member. Cacchione then contacted Jack Fritz, a professor at the FDU-Madison campus, and decided to organize a horse show with him.
Cacchione says he told Jack, “Just bring riders, and we’ll pick horses out of a hat.” The competition was a huge success. Six colleges that had heard about the show attended another competition that Cacchione held later that year. Word continued to spread, and the IHSA was officially born.
“I never looked back,” says Cacchione.
About the IHSA
The IHSA is designed to test the horsemanship skills of the student riders, not score the horses. Riders are judged on their equitation and overall effectiveness. The hosting school provides the horses, and each rider randomly selects a horse’s name. When their class is called, the riders mount and enter the show-ring. Schooling is not allowed. The system is designed to make the competition as level as possible. It doesn’t matter what kind of tack or horse you have at home. In the IHSA arena, it’s about how you ride a horse you’ve never ridden before.
Students compete as a team as well as individually, and there are classes for both hunt seat and western riders. Beginner classes are for riders who have just started to learn how to ride, and open classes are for the most experienced riders. In order for a team to be successful, it must have a rider competing in every division. Therefore, the rookie rider’s class is just as important as the most experienced rider’s class. The team aspect of the IHSA is something that makes it unique.
“The IHSA makes the riders better because they ride all different horses,” says Cacchione. “It also builds team camaraderie. Riders make lifelong friends.”
Colleges and universities in the IHSA are divided into 36 regions, and at each show, riders can earn points. Once a rider earns a total of 35 points, he or she advances to the next highest division and qualifies for the regional competition.
The IHSA calendar runs with the academic year, giving teams and riders a chance to qualify for the national competition every year. In 2010, the national horse show was held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., home of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) a few months later.
“We’re going back to Lexington this year,” says Peter Cashman, chairman for national horse shows with the IHSA and coach of the equestrian team at The United States Military Academy at West Point, where he has been working for 24 years.
“The IHSA is the purest form of competition in the horse business,” Cashman adds. “It’s so great that we get to have our kids ride where the WEG was held.”
Hunt seat classes range from beginner level to medal/Maclay. The classes are beginner, walk/trot/canter, novice, intermediate and open. Walk/trot/canter is split into two sections—beginner and advanced. The novice, intermediate and open divisions have equitation on the flat as well as equitation over fences classes. Novice equitation over fences has at least six jumps ranging from 2’3″ to 2’9″ in height. Intermediate fences are between 2’6″ and 3 feet in height, and open fences are at least 2’9″ but don’t exceed 3’3″.
In the equitation on the flat classes, riders are judged at the walk, trot and canter in both directions. Judges may also ask riders to perform tests, such as a figure-eight or a specific transition.
At the 2010 IHSA National Horse Show in Lexington, Ky., the champion hunt seat team was from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“I see my students every day of their academic years,” says Cindy Ford, head riding coach at Skidmore. “Hard work is the secret to success. My students are not only talented in the classroom; they’re also talented as riders.”
Along with the hunter team championship, there is also the coveted United States Equestrian Federation (USEF)/Cacchione Cup. The open rider from each region with the most points from the year in flat and over fences classes qualifies. In 2010, Lindsay Sceats from Mount Holyoke College captured the USEF/Cacchione Cup.
“It was pretty incredible to win the Cacchione Cup,” says Sceats, now a senior. “My favorite part about the IHSA is helping the walk/trot riders. The IHSA provides a great place for people to learn how to ride correctly and an opportunity to show on a national level.”
Western competition in the IHSA is similar to hunter competition. Classes range from beginner to open, in which competitors also ride a reining pattern. The order of classes from least to most experienced in western is beginner, intermediate, novice, advanced and open. Just as hunt seat splits the walk/trot/canter division, western divides the intermediate division. However, while the top three divisions in hunt seat compete in over fences classes, only the open division competes in reining in western. Reining competitors may be asked to complete one of 10 different patterns.
Riders in western classes may be asked to walk, jog and lope in both directions. Judges will often also ask some or all riders to complete horsemanship patterns, which can also be used as tie-breakers. Riders must study the potential pattern for the class before entering the ring so they’re as prepared as possible.
Open riders in each region also compete for the High Point rider award at the end of the season. Each region’s High Point rider competes for the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) High Point Western Rider award at the national competition.
In 2010, the AQHA High Point Western Rider was Jason Romney from Utah State University.
“I can’t think of a better thing for someone in college who has horses or enjoys riding to be a part of,” Romney says of the IHSA. He is now a senior and the western equestrian team coach at Utah State. “I have shown horses competitively my whole life, but the IHSA has put a sense of camaraderie in it that I’ve never had before.”
Coaches of IHSA teams range from successful students like Jason Romney to well-known individuals in the horse industry.
“There are a lot of professionals involved as coaches in the IHSA throughout the country,” says Cacchione. “I think it shows a lot of credibility to the IHSA.”
At the University of Findlay in Ohio, for example, Clark Bradley is the assistant coach of the western team. Bradley was awarded the 2001 AQHA Horseman of the Year honor and is also a two-time National Reining Horse Association Futurity Champion. At the national IHSA competition in 2010, the University of Findlay was the champion western team.
University of Findlay head coach Cindy Morehead, who works with Bradley, believes the IHSA is a fantastic opportunity for college students.
“The IHSA gives students a chance to keep riding in their college years, and they don’t necessarily have to have their own horse,” says Morehead.
The IHSA provides students with a place to learn about horses, compete as a team, and make lifelong friends. It’s also a way to get involved in a college or university outside of academics. To find out if a college or university has an IHSA team, or to learn about starting an IHSA team, visit www.ihsainc.com.
Allison Griest, a freelance writer based in Texas, was a member of Texas Tech University’s IHSA hunt seat and western teams and competed in the IHSA Nationals in 2007.
This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.