Senior Sarah Apgar walks along the salted sidewalk toward the Oxley Equestrian Center at Cornell University on Feb. 16. As she opens the glass front doors, which fogged because of the cold, the familiar smell of dirt and hay wafts up her nostrils.
Overhead, dim fluorescent lights illuminate the 250 foot by 90 foot arena as the Ithaca College equestrian team joins 11 other schools from around New York state to compete at the last Cornell Show of the season. The faint thud of hooves softly echoes throughout the facility as Cornell’s riders warm up prior to the show. Hanging over the riders near the ceiling are 24 red banners, which signify each National Championship Cornell’s accomplished varsity team has won in the program’s history — an honor Ithaca’s club team would one day like to receive.
The Ithaca College equestrian team is an on-campus club founded 17 years ago that has been trying to gain recognition as a varsity sport. Until then, the team is limited in its practice time because of financial constraints and team status. This also translates into competitions, as Apgar said she and the rest of her team are at a disadvantage before they even mount their horses.
“We use Cornell’s horses, which a lot of us haven’t ever ridden before,” she said. “We get no warm-up, we just get on and ride. Whereas if we hosted our own shows, we would have that advantage that Cornell and other varsity programs have.”
In 2012, ICET member Kathleen Burns ’12 began to vie for the team to gain varsity status when the college needed to add a women’s sport to comply with Title IX legislation. When sculling was chosen in 2012 to become the newest women’s varsity sport, the equestrian team was left behind. After the decision was made to keep the team as a club sport, ICET president Sarah Farmer-Smith said she was told by an Office of Intercollegiate Athletics staff member to temper the team’s advocacy for varsity status when she became club president in the fall of 2012.
For a club team to be considered for varsity sport status, the organization’s head officers must submit a form to the athletics office. Then it must receive a recommendation from the college’s Gender Equity Committee, which meets annually to review the college’s athletic teams and its compliance with Title IX requirements.
Next, several aspects of the sport are reviewed, including coaching availability, competition at the varsity level in the region and the amount of local recruiting available for the sport. After all of this is considered, the committee can recommend the sport to President Tom Rochon, who then makes the final decision.
Michelle Manning, assistant director of intercollegiate athletics, said the college is not ready to add a varsity team for the next academic year. Despite the wait, ICET member sophomore Krista Vrabel said the team is remaining optimistic that its proposals will eventually convince the athletics office to add equestrian as the 28th varsity sport.
“There has been talk of ICET becoming a varsity sport, and our entire team would be ecstatic if that were to happen,” Vrabel said. “I believe that every single team member wants us to go varsity and hopes that it will happen soon.”
The ICET currently has 30 members, and seniors Farmer-Smith and vice president Rachel Schechter coordinate the club. Members must pay fees each semester to have access to lessons and the team’s practice facility, If Only Farm, in Freeville, N.Y. The facility is a 15-minute drive from campus, and team members carpool to practice and events because the college doesn’t provide transportation for clubs.
Once at the farm, riders are given the choice to practice either once or twice per week. While members are not required to compete in shows, the 12 riders who choose to compete typically practice twice per week, Farmer-Smith said. Fees vary each year, but once-a-week riders will pay between $300 and $500 while those who opt for the maximum practice time will pay between $600 and $800.
Meanwhile, Cornell University provides the 30 members of its equestrian team riding lessons at no cost. The university also provides box stalls for horses on campus.
The limited amount the team can practice affects its performance. Schechter said the team would like varsity status because it’s currently fighting an uphill battle at events. The teams the riders compete against, like Cornell University and Alfred University, are certified varsity programs, and they practice more, which allows them to form greater chemistry with their horses and hone their technique.
“Most sports you practice every day, and because we don’t, we’re at a little bit more of a disadvantage,” she said. “Right now, most of us ride once or twice per week, which is a lot less than all of the other varsity teams we compete against.”
According to Vrabel, the club’s routine consists of bringing its horses in, grooming them and then tacking up — outfitting the horse with a saddle, stirrups, bridles, halters, reins, bits and harnesses prior to riding. After that, athletes rides their horses through three to four course cycles, and they cool down by walking their horses out until their heartbeat returns to resting rate.
Apgar said the team is limited in not only its practice time, but also team workouts, which improves team unity.
“It is really expensive — we pay out of pocket for lessons,” she said. “We also can’t have team workouts. Looking at the Cornell team, they’re riding so many more times a week, and they’re lifting and going to the gym, and it doesn’t cost [riders] nearly as much money.”
Apgar also said riders should ideally practice three to four times a week. Vrabel said varsity status would level the playing field for when the team competes at events and shows.
“More practice time would allow us to become more competitive,” she said. “We compete against varsity schools such as Cornell and Alfred, and while we have become a very competitive team, it’s hard when we’re only allowed to practice one-fourth the time that they are practicing.”
Vrabel admitted she can’t practice as much as she’d like because of the steep cost of lessons.
Last year, the ICET finished second in the regional standing behind Alfred. Farmer-Smith said she was surprised at how well the team has been doing since she has been involved, even despite limited practice time.
“I would say during the last four years we have definitely become a strong force to be reckoned with,” she said.
Farmer-Smith also said the riders’ strong performances have caused others to take notice of the team, including competitors and potential recruits. She said performing well at competitions may convince the athletics office to grow the program and provide additional resources to help offset travel and equipment expenses.
ICET member junior Maria Amalia Van Buskirk said though making the ICET a varsity sport would take a concerted effort by the athletics office at the college, she is optimistic that it is listening.
“The hard part is it takes a lot of money and there would have to be a facility,” Van Buskirk said. “It would definitely be a huge commitment by the school, but the idea has been brought up a few times, and I think they’re definitely paying attention.