Smith College equestrian team demoted from varsity to club

Photo by Ayla Safran ’18 The equestrian stable on the Smith College Campus.

Photo by Ayla Safran ’18

The equestrian stable on the Smith College Campus.

BY NICOLE VILLACRÉS ’18

Smith College announced in December 2016 that their equestrian team would shift in status from a varsity sport to a club sport in the fall of 2017. A news release from the college stated that the transition would allow Smith to "focus its athletic resources on varsity sports," which is more in line with the Smith's interest in being a leader in "NCAA-sanctioned sports competition at the national level." The National Collegiate Athletic Association governs most varsity sports at Smith and Mount Holyoke, while the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association governs collegiate riders.

The athletic department will continue funding the team until the transition and after that the Smith College Student Government Association will fund the team, according to a statement released by Smith. The dean of Smith college and vice president for campus life, Donna Lisker, stated that "a number of factors led us to this decision," among them a decline in riding instruction enrollment and the risk involved in outsourcing animal and barn management to external vendors, according to a statement made to the Sophian, the Smith College newspaper.

The announcement has drawn a negative response from riding students, parents and alumnae who have joined to create a group called Save Smith Equestrian. The group is circulating a petition, which currently has 1,946 supporters. Riders at Mount Holyoke also had concerns about what the decision meant.

At first, there were concerns that the transition would cause realignment in the region in which Mount Holyoke competes, potentially changing the schools that the Mount Holyoke equestrian team competes against. Kristen Hughes, director of athletics at Smith, assured the community in a news release that the riders would maintain their same competition schedule.

Mollie Kowalchik '18, assistant team manager of the Mount Holyoke equestrian team, further explained how a change at Smith would not affect Mount Holyoke equestrian team. "I don't think that the change in status of a team from varsity to club would prompt such realignment since the number of teams in our region would remain the same, so long as Smith remained a team, regardless of club status," said Kowalchik.  

Taryn Isenburg '18, team manager of the Mount Holyoke equestrian team, added that since their region had seen the addition of several teams including Bennington College and Hampshire College, she didn't believe that Mount Holyoke would be reclassified to another region, "even if Smith fails to keep a club team running."

Kowalchik speculated that the shift could potentially cause the region to become less competitive. "Smith is one of the more competitive teams in our region. Their change to club status may result in a less competitive team for them since many strong riders prefer to ride on a varsity team, and therefore may not choose to attend Smith. However, there are plenty of competitive teams throughout the country that are club status, so the Smith team may very well remain a strong team."

Mika McKinney '18, equestrian admissions fellow, discussed how riders preferring varsity teams could benefit the Mount Holyoke riding program. "Mount Holyoke might gain more interest from prospective students due to the lack of riding options offered at Smith. Students looking at Mount Holyoke are also often looking at Smith and this might become a deciding factor for them."

Ultimately, many riders believe the transition negatively impacts all the riding teams in the area because of its demonstration of a lack of support for equestrian as a varsity sport.

"I do think the demotion of the team affects the morale of the region and our team here. We are all advocates for riding as a serious varsity sport, and we enjoy seeing women recognized for their accomplishments through horsemanship. It is hard to see the demotion of Smith's team, because it seems to defy this notion," said Isenburg.

Regarding Smith's interest in focusing only on NCAA sanctioned sports, Kowalchik explained that a different body governs riding. "Equestrian is emerging as an NCAA sport, but there are only a select few teams that compete in the NCAA format. Before it was recognized as an NCAA sport, the IHSA was created. 50 years ago to be exact," said Kowalchik. This difference in governance seems to be what Smith is citing as their main reason for the demotion. 

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