The equestrian team is one of Drew’s most mysterious sports teams, as they do not have home competitions and do not practice on campus. In an effort to shed some light on the program, especially as they conclude one of their most successful years yet, we interviewed the head coach, Karen Sykes as well as Carli Gentile (‘18) one of the team captains. Gentile has been involved with riding for the last 11 years, since a family trip in fifth grade inspired her to learn how to ride. She found Drew as she only applied to schools that had equestrian programs, and chose Drew for the strong science program, as she is a science major on the pre-vet track. Gentile is one of the five girls on the team who own their own horse and have been riding for a long time, she noted that they also have athletes who have never ridden a horse before coming to Drew, including one who is just learning how to ride this semester. Even though some of their riders come in with experience riding horses, many of them have to learn how to show horses which can be extremely difficult. The point of riding and showing is to make it look easy, so riders must create a partnership with the horse before they ride. Every time riders show horses, it is a different horse, depending on which school is hosting the show, so horse shows can be very challenging.
Gentile says that her favorite part about equestrian is going to the horse shows when all of her teammates are having a good day and seeing their smiles when all their hard work pays off. The team recently won their second reserve championship of the season, at the Centenary Horse Show on Saturday, concluding their regular season. Due to the fact that equestrian is both a team and an individual sport, Gentile says that the biggest challenge about being a part of the team is bringing everyone together. She added that they have been working especially hard this on making the team a good, supportive environment.
In addition to Gentile’s insight, Head Coach Karen Sykes answered a few questions about the history of equestrian at Drew, as well as the ISHA, the conference they compete in and the history of equestrian at Drew.
How long has equestrian been a sport and how did it first arrive at Drew?
Equestrian has been a sport at Drew since the 70’s. The genesis of college horseback riding teams was the creation of the IHSA, Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (www.ihsainc.com). This was founded in 1967 by a student at FDU named Bob Cacchione, who believed the organization could offer the opportunity for anyone to ride in college, regardless of financial means. The unique premise of the IHSA is that students do not have to have their own horses! The host college at each college horse show provides horses for use in the show, and the students draw their mount by lot – so it’s all about the luck of the draw! The riding levels are predetermined based upon the riders experience, so it’s an even playing field – beginner riders compete against beginner riders, novice riders compete against other novice riders, and so on.
How often does the team practice? Where is Dapple Hill Farms?
The team participation requirements entail 10 riding lessons per semester, so 20 lessons per year. 10 in the fall, and 10 in the spring. Riders are encouraged to ride more often, as much as they can given the financial and time commitments. The team captains run ‘captains workouts’ 3x a week on campus. Dapple Hill Farm is in Bedminster, NJ, about 20 minutes from campus. It’s located on Fox Chase Farms on River Road, a beautiful property with an indoor arena, outdoor ring and grass field.
Does Drew own horses or do riders have their own?
Drew does not own horses. We contract with Dapple Hill Farm for all of the riding lessons for the team, and the horses are owned by Dapple HIll Farm. Some of the riders do have their own horses, and often continue to ride and compete their own horses in addition to their team commitments. I strongly encourage as much saddle time as the riders can get!
Can you join the equestrian team if you have never done equestrian as a sport or is previous competition experience necessary?
Yes that is the beauty of riding in college! Whether you have ridden for years, or if you have never sat on a horse, the program is open to all levels of riders. The important key is that this is a very individual activity that we present to the student athletes as a team sport. At the college shows, each rider competes for individual points (7 points for a blue ribbon/1st place, 5 points for a red ribbon/ 2nd place, 4 points for a yellow ribbon/3rd place, etc). Additionally, each teams coach chooses a point rider to represent the team points for the day. There are 8 divisions, from Walk Trot up to Open, so I pick one riders in each division to have their points count for the team score, in addition to their own individual tally.
Is equestrian a fall or spring sport, or both?
Equestrian is a ‘non traditional’ sport – we compete in the fall and in the spring. We attend college horse shows in September-November, and February-April. After the regular season ends, individuals who have acquired the requisite number of points qualify for Regional Championships. Currently we have 6 riders qualified for Regional Championships this weekend, being held at Crosswinds Equestrian Center in Lagrangeville, NY, hosted by Marist College. Any riders placing 1st or 2nd will qualify for Zone Championships, the following weekend at Centenary College Equestrian Center in Long Valley, NJ. Any rider placing 1st or 2nd at Zones will move on to National Championships the first weekend in May held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY.
In the past, Drew has had male riders. Is the sport coed or all female now?
Though Equestrian is listed as a Women’s sport on the Rangers website, we certainly welcome male riders to participate on the team. We have a history of notably accomplished male alumni riders – James Fairclough II and Archie Cox – who competed on the equestrian team and competed at the highest level while riding for Drew. Jame won both the Region and National IHSA Cacchione Cup in 2008 (similar to a Heisman Trophy in football – the best college rider!), and Archie won the National IHSA Open Equitation on the Flat in 1989. Additionally, 1996 Silver Medal Olympian Peter Leone and his brother Mark also attended Drew, but did not ride on the team.
Drew equestrian is enjoying one of their most successful seasons in a long time. What do you think is contributing to that?
The team’s two Reserve High Point College wins this season are definitely a highlight! I contribute focus and dedication by the student athletes – they come to practice and workouts with a positive attitude and give 100% effort to their preparation. Their riding lessons at Dapple Hill are a mixture of flatwork and jumping, depending on their riding level, and they ride different horses throughout the semester. This enables them to learn and adapt to different ways the horses have of going – some are comfortable and some are bouncy! The riders are fortunate to be at a barn close to campus, where they can ride midday. It’s a nice break from campus life to spend time outside with animals and doing something they love, in a team atmosphere!
How do you go about recruiting new riders?
Recruiting is a year round effort! We attend several of the College Preparatory Invitational events, which are focused on middle & high school riders and provides a venue for these recruits to showcase their interest in college riding to coaches. I have coached student athletes at CPI as well, enabling early communication and relationship building. We advertise in the annual USEF college riding directory, promote the team via Facebook and Instagram, and of course word of mouth! When recruits come to campus we try to arrange time for barn visits as well.
You rode for Drew when you were a student here. What was it like to come back and coach the team that you were a part of? Are alum often brought back as coaches for the program?
I spent a couple of years after graduation assisting my coach, Joan Greenberg. Joan was an amazing coach, very supportive and engaging. Once Joan retired, I took over as the head coach in 2001. The transition from rider to assistant to head coach was a positive experience for me as I had Joan’s support as well as the support of the Athletic Department. I’m very proud of the student athletes that have come thru the program, many of whom are still engaged in equestrian activities today – in fact I spend time [with the] team [of] one of my former riders’ daughter! The IHSA has an active alumni program where if you rode on a college IHSA team as an undergrad, you can compete in an alumni division. We’ve had several successful riders do this – Sandra Sayre C’94 and Kristine Kennedy C’06 both hold National IHSA titles in the alumni division and both have coached the team at Drew. Our current assistant coaches, Rachel Denning and Michelle McQueen both rode on the team as well. So it’s a bit of a natural progression to want to stay involved with the team and ‘give back’ to the program that was so important in their college careers.
Is there anything you would like the campus community to know about the equestrian program?
Riding in college is fun! We are a competitive team with a focus on horsemanship, sportsmanship and building a positive team and college competition experience. No experience is necessary, and while it seems like the time commitment may be daunting, all of the riders make it work very well. I have many science majors on the team and they are able to fit in workouts, lessons and horse shows while staying on top of their studies and spending time in the lab. We have Civic Scholars who are able to keep and exceed their volunteer commitments and many riders who enjoy taking advantage of Drew’s internship and semesters in NY opportunities. We would love to hear from current students who may be interested in riding – in addition to our recruiting efforts for incoming freshmen, we always like walk-on’s!