You are a high school freshman and your parents and guidance counsellors are already asking you what you want to study in university. The school you choose might be close to home, or it might be in another province, or even in another country. Panic sets in when you start to wonder if you might have to quit riding.

The great news is that there are now many options for a young equestrian who wants to continue riding during their path to a higher education, and scholarships to help them along the way. Regardless of your level of expertise or financial situation, there is a university riding team that will keep you in the saddle throughout your time at school.

There are three different types of university equestrian teams, with varying levels of preparation required for each.

National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)

If you are competitive in the 3’6” equitation divisions on the national circuit, then you might want to consider applying to one of the 23 universities in the United States that has an NCAA equestrian team. These teams offer scholarships that can help pay for tuition, books, and room and board. You will have to start early, however, as the recruitment process is quite lengthy and detailed. The best place to start is with your coach, parents, and high school guidance counsellor when you are in Grade 9 or 10.

The National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) is the non-profit corporation that governs the NCAA equestrian sport and their website ( provides step-by-step guidelines on how to get started on the application process. The recruitment system may seem time-consuming and intimidating, but the ultimate benefits of being an NCAA student-athlete are well worth the effort. An extremely helpful publication available from the NCAA as a free download ( is the NCAA Guide for the College Bound Student-Athlete which provides detailed information on the recruitment process.

As far as scholarships go, the NCAA is probably the most lucrative. As per NCAA rules, each team can offer 15 ‘full rides.’ These scholarships cover tuition, student fees, room, board, and books. Depending on the school you attend, the costs could be anywhere from $6,000 to $40,000 per academic year. The university is given the choice of how to distribute the funds, so they can split up the 15 full ride scholarships into smaller amounts that can be distributed to as many team members as they want. Very few teams offer full rides, choosing instead to spread the funds among their most valuable student-athletes. The amount of scholarship you will be offered is discussed with the team coach, NCAA university representative, and your parents prior to signing the Letter of Intent. The continuance of that funding from one year to the next is determined by your academic standing and your contribution to the equestrian team.

As an example, Santana Wright, of Newmarket, ON, attended South Dakota State University from 2010-2014 on an NCAA athletic scholarship. During her first year she was awarded a 40% scholarship from the NCAA and another 20% from the university for her academic standings from high school. Her second year increased to 55% NCAA and another 20% from other academic grants and bursaries, then 65% NCAA and 20% from grants and bursaries. In her senior year Santana was awarded a 90% NCAA scholarship because of her outstanding contributions to the equestrian team.

In addition to Santana, Amelia Vernon (USC), Jessica Blum (UGA), Nora Gray (SMU), Hayley Jescke (DSU), Quincy Hayes (AUB) and Vanessa Rabito (DEL) are just a few of the Canadian riders who have been NCEA team members. Some have graduated, some are still competing, but when asked if they made the right decision by choosing to pursue a spot on an NCEA team, all the graduates said it was the best four years of their life.

Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA)

Even though the IHSA is an association that exists mainly in US colleges, there are several Canadian universities that have IHSA equestrian teams. As of January 2016 there were 408 college IHSA teams with 6,288 hunt seat riders that compete in eight different zones, with five regions each, culminating in a national championship held each year in Kentucky. In Canada there are currently six university equestrian teams competing regularly against other IHSA teams – Brock University, Lakehead University, University of BC, University of Guelph, University of Ottawa, and University of Western Ontario.

Tryouts for an IHSA equestrian team are held at the beginning of the academic school year. You will be scheduled a tryout time where your riding abilities will be assesed to determine for which division you are best suited. One of the best things about the IHSA is that all levels of riders can join the team. There are divisions for walk/trot, walk/trot/canter, novice, intermediate, and open over fences (max. height 3’6”).

A lot of the colleges and universities with IHSA equestrian teams don’t offer traditional athletic scholarships like the NCAA. But many offer various other ways to help. Whether it’s called scholarships, financial aid, or grants, it can add up to a substantial amount.

For example, Johnson & Wales is a private university in Providence, Rhode Island, that provides any student who was an honour student in high school a $10,000 scholarship. All of their scholarships are purely academic. They are looking for the best students who also ride. If there is a good rider that a IHSA coach wants on their team, they will work with financial aid, the admissions department, and the family to see what type of financial aid they are eligible for.

However, once you are a member of a team there are several scholarships, bursaries, and awards that you can apply for. The scholarships, and how to apply, are listed on the IHSA website ( under the scholarships tab. These awards are presented at the National Championships each year:

  • Jon Conyers Scholarship $1,500
  • T. McDonald Scholarship Challenge $1,500
  • Bob Anthony Memorial Scholarship $1,500
  • Intercollegiate Equestrian Foundation Scholarship $1,000

Don’t forget there are Canadian universities that are members of the IHSA, so you don’t have to attend a college in the US to qualify for these awards, just be an active member of an IHSA equestrian team.

Hilary Rock of Sault Ste Marie, ON, is attending the University of Western Ontario as an honours student specializing in Nutrition and Dietetics. She is a member of her school’s IHSA and OUEA teams and says of her experience as a university equestrian team member, “As a coach, captain and competitor, IHSA has opened the doors for me to be part of an equestrian team which has given me life-long skills and memories. It is amazing to watch my teammates develop their riding abilities by being able to compete in a friendly, yet competitive, zone. IHSA offers the unique opportunity to travel to new places, meet new equestrian athletes, and ride some amazing horses. As a competitor from the Ontario Trillium Zone, it has been a pleasure to be able to continue my riding career throughout my university life and meet some amazing people because of it.”

Ontario University Equestrian Association (OUEA)

The OUEA is the youngest of the university equestrian associations. Founded in 2007 by a dedicated group of students who wanted to continue riding during their post-secondary education, the association is still completely run by students, alumni, and generous volunteers in the Ontario equestrian industry. Currently, there are 16 schools that actively participate in the OUEA and the province is split into three zones – East, West and Central.

Tryouts are held at the beginning of the academic year and, similar to the IHSA, riders are scheduled for an assessment lesson and then placed into the appropriate division for their experience level. The OUEA has four competition divisions ranging from an 18” entry over fences division up to the open division, which is typically 3’. Each division has a corresponding flat class and everything is judged similarly to equitation classes.

Emily Newman is the current president of the OUEA and she has been involved in university equestrian teams for many years. “The OUEA has had a huge impact on my life. As a rider, I didn’t grow up competing on a team sport and as such never had a team experience. I joined the OUEA in my first year of undergrad studies at Queen’s in 2010. I was pretty skeptical about the circuit, as I had heard mixed reviews and knew that it was still just a start-up, having been created in 2007. That said, as soon as I went to my first show I was hooked. The team supported each other, got to know each other, and became a really closely-knit group throughout the year.

“In my second year, I became the team’s junior captain. I then took over the captain role for Queen’s in my third and fourth year. When I graduated in 2014 and moved to the University of Toronto for my Master’s degree, I became the vice-president of the OUEA Executive Committee, and then in 2015 moved into the president role. Throughout all this time the OUEA has provided me the opportunity to connect with like-minded, horse-obsessed people while at school.”

The Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) association is similar to the NCAA and governs and administers national competition for Canadian university athletes. Student-athletes in many team sports can be recruited and offered scholarships to attend and compete on university teams. Unfortunately, at this time the OUEA is still considered to be a ‘club sport’ and has not yet developed enough to be considered for the CIS.

However, there are a number of scholarships and bursaries that are available to equestrians planning on a post-secondary education, but you must look outside the usual academic opportunities. National and provincial equestrian associations are a good starting point when searching for funding for your university education. Here are just a few to consider:

Planning for life after high school can seem overwhelming, but horses can still be a big part of your life thanks to university riding teams and scholarships. Being part of an equestrian team can provide so many opportunities for growth, time in the saddle, competition, and great friendships that will last a lifetime.