IEA - Sport of Kings?by
Kathy coaching some of her IEA riders; photo credit Bob Rubino
For the last four years, I have had the pleasure of coaching a riding team that competes in shows through the Interscholastic Equestrian Association. This is a great opportunity for kids in grades 6-12 who like to show and want to be part of a team experience. Even better, riders may earn a varsity letter and even college scholarships through the IEA. Sportsmanship is stressed and rewarded, and riders are strongly encouraged to improve their horsemanship skills as well.
One of the most appealing aspects of IEA is that it is more affordable than traditional horse-showing. Riders do not need to own a horse in order to participate. Teams travel to shows where the hosting facility provides appropriately-leveled horses and riders are assigned a horse through random draw. Riders compete both individually and as members of a team; individuals and teams can then qualify through a point system for Regional, Zone, and National competition.
IEA has been increasing its membership drastically over the last few years. At last count, there were over 12,000 riders across the country who are actively involved in IEA. Colleges are taking notice, and collegiate coaches are recruiting riders for their college teams. IEA is now a springboard for high school students who wish to earn the opportunity to ride at the collegiate level and even earn riding scholarships. Because of this, riders who show in traditional horse shows and have their own horses are becoming increasingly involved in IEA. Big Eq riders are regularly seen riding on IEA teams and are now winning IEA national championships.
While it is a good thing that the level of riding at IEA competitions has been rising, there is a downside. Competition at these shows is becoming so stiff that the riders who can only afford to compete through IEA are finding that it is getting harder and harder for them to qualify for regional competition and above. The very riders who were drawn to IEA because of its affordability are now being shut out. Because they don’t compete in traditional shows, they don’t have nearly the presence and experience that the kids who show regularly possess.
Additionally, IEA has a “2-year rule.” According to this rule, riders must move up to the next higher division after they have competed for 2 years in one division. This rule applies even when the rider has not been successful in that division or has not acquired any additional show experience. (Middle school riders who are moving to high school are considered a “new evaluation” and can restart at any level, regardless of previous IEA experience.) The only exception is that coaches may request a “rider evaluation” by an IEA official in order to prove that it would be dangerous or inappropriate for that rider to move to a higher level. Many coaches are hesitant to request such an evaluation; I know that I would feel terrible telling a rider that she needs to be evaluated so that I can hold her back.
Just to make things more interesting, the standards that IEA suggests that riders should meet in order to compete at certain levels are quite high. For example, a Varsity Open rider, who competes at the 2’6″ level in IEA, should be able to jump a 3’6″ course on her regular mount. However, many of the riders who show at this level in IEA have never had the opportunity to jump at such a height, having only ridden and learned on school horses. These riders are now at a severe disadvantage by being asked to compete against kids who routinely jump and show over fences at this height.
As a result, the riders who are most intended to benefit from IEA competition, those who can’t afford their own horses, are now finding themselves at a large competitive disadvantage. It is getting harder and harder for them to place well enough so that they can qualify for Regional, Zone, and National competition. Ironically, though these are the riders who would most benefit from a college scholarship, they are the very riders who are being shut out of consideration for such financial help. The riders who are winning, and who are winning scholarships, are those who own their own mounts and compete at the “Big Eq” level.
Fortunately, though, there are ways in which IEA could address this issue. One way would be to only require riders to move up to a new level of IEA competition when they have scored a certain amount of points, rather than using the arbitrary “2-year” rule. This would allow riders to move up when their skills have reached a new level, rather than simply when they have been at a level for a certain amount of time.
Another option would be to create two divisions of IEA competition – Open and Modified. Under such a system, riders would compete against riders whose level of experience reflects their own. A rider who can safely jump a strange horse around a 2’6″ course could still compete at the Varsity 2’6″ level. However, if her traditional showing experience has been limited, she could compete in a “modified” division against riders who have a similar background. Very competitive riders, such as those with lots of show mileage, could ride in the Open division against riders of similar caliber.
Obsiously, this kind of system would take some serious planning in order to fairly implement. However, it may be worthwhile in the long run. Colleges who are looking for an NCAA-level rider will still recruit from the Open ranks. But college coaches who run a club team will have the opportunity to see and recruit from the ranks of those who have had limited resources but have managed to progress their skills to a high level.