Already you might be thinking, “Vassar has an equestrian team? Since when?” You wouldn’t be alone. The equestrian team has a quiet presence on campus, often slipping under the radar, perhaps because it predominantly takes place in Millbrook, a scenic 30-minute drive down winding tree-lined roads to where MLC farm is located.
Each week, groups of four or five students pile into a Vassar van to go to their hour-long lesson with Coach Michelle Clopp. This semester, 12 students are taking weekly riding lessons, and five regularly compete in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA).
The Vassar equestrian team was around long before Vassar became co-ed. In its earliest stages, the stables were still located on campus where the Martel theater now stands. The team is part of the IHSA in Region 3 Zone 3. They compete around New York and in surrounding states against nine other schools, including Marist, West Point, Sarah Lawrence and Bard. A sentiment that has challenged the equestrian club for years, and one that may contribute to its relative lack of publicity, is that riding is too expensive and that money should not be funneled into an activity dominated by the very wealthy.
While it may be true that the most disadvantaged students are unlikely to have had the resources to pursue riding before coming to college, most of the students who compete in the IHSA are those without the resources to compete on the A circuit. The IHSA website states, “The Association was founded on the principle that any college student should be able to participate in horse shows, regardless of their financial status or riding level. The IHSA attempts to eliminate the expenses of students owning horses and allows more students to compete.” As a part of the IHSA, Vassar riders not only get to take part in intercollegiate competitions, they get to do so on a level financial playing field.
Clopp says that in her years as coach she is constantly reminded of the stigma of wealth surrounding horseback riding. However, she noted that her riders come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Vassar’s team is open to anyone. It includes members who have ridden and competed for years, and others who have little or no equestrian experience but want to learn to ride. The team’s biggest struggle is gaining the resources to support a sport that takes a lot of money while trying not to place too large a burden on the students.
Now in her fourth year on the team, Laura Recoder ’16 reflected on the challenge of funding and accessibility for Vassar’s equestrian club. “Luckily for us, Vassar makes riding accessible and relatively affordable compared to what you would pay to ride anywhere else,” she mused.
She went on to add that she wished that riding were treated more like other varsity sports on campus. “I do think Vassar needs to give more funding to the team, and treat it more seriously like it does for the other sport teams here,” she said. “Whether you have grown up riding or never gotten on a horse before, this is an opportunity to get healthy and active, just like any other sport. (Contrary to what most people think, riding can be quite a workout!)”
The club is by no means all about competing either. The main feature of the club is the weekly group lessons, where students have fun riding, caring for the horses and improving their skills with one-on-one attention from Clopp. Several of the team’s members competed before coming to Vassar, but decided to only take lessons. The club’s treasurer, Cari Goldfine ’16, explained that riding at Vassar is much more about the love of the sport. “I competed before coming to Vassar, but I don’t here. Mostly because I never really liked competing–I ride for fun.” Michaela Coplen ’18 finds the relationship-building aspect of horseback riding crucial and missed that element in competition. “I competed freshman year, but I don’t anymore,” she explained. “I personally don’t like the style of IHSA competitions…It’s not as rewarding for me to get placed on a random horse for only one ride. I prefer to work with and get to know the horse.”
Until two years ago, the equestrian team wasn’t the College’s only horse-related club, as it used to share the spotlight with the polo team. While unconfirmed, some say that Vassar holds a place in history for having the first all-female polo team in the United States. Polo is a team sport played on horseback. The objective is to score goals against an opposing team by driving a small ball into the opposing team’s goal using a long-handled mallet.
Already the team is fading from memory as most who remember or were a part of the team have now graduated. Peter Galer ’16 was the final student to ever join the Vassar Polo Team. The year before he arrived at Vassar the team had mismanaged their funds and gone over budget in their travels to competitions, and was never able to recover. The VSA withdrew funding for the team after Galer’s sophomore year and the team disbanded.
Once again, dangerous stereotypes played a hand in the reputation of the club. Galer believes assumptions made about the sport most likely aided its decline, not only at Vassar but at other schools as well. “There is no doubt an elitist feeling associated with equestrian and polo,” Galer acknowledged. “It is extremely expensive. There is also a femininity attached to English riding that people do not directly talk about. When one mentions that they ‘ride,’ often times a picture pops up in their head of that elementary school kid that had horse-themed sheets, horse toys and posters. It never bothered me much—I was always told I was feminine. All of this of course is BS, but it still has a big impact on who chooses to give the sport a go.”
As for the equestrian team, its members have no intention of letting it disappear in the same way the polo team did. They recognize, however, that to keep it going strong, the assumptions about riding cannot go unchallenged, and part of doing that is continuing to make the team more accessible for lower income students and increasing the team’s visibility. Many of the team’s current members didn’t know that Vassar had a team until they got on campus. Recoder recalled that she only stumbled upon the team through a casual conversation with a friend over their shared love of horses. Recoder said, “If I hadn’t been having that discussion with my friend, I am fairly certain I would not have found out about the team until much later, and would have missed out on riding my first semester here.”
Clopp has also noticed the difficulty prospective students have in learning about the team and pointed out that increased publicity of the team could also make a difference in whether a student chooses Vassar.
“I have prospective students stopping in at the farm to look around,” Clopp said, “And they tell me they know Vassar has an equestrian team, but cannot find anything on the Vassar website. Last week, I had a family come and the father told me they were only looking at schools who had a riding program.”
The team’s members laugh at how typical the incredulous response “Vassar has an equestrian team?” is whenever they bring up their involvement, but they’re hoping to change how frequent that reaction is. Goldfine spoke to this goal: “The equestrian team is a pretty small team, all things considered, and at the end of the day it is a pretty expensive sport.”
Goldfine went on, “That said, over the past few years the VSA has been increasing our budget, which is really nice. It’d be lovely if more people were on the team, and we’re definitely exploring some options for how to raise our profile on campus. The exec board is in the early planning stages of organizing a clinic, and of some fundraisers. In the past we’ve volunteered at a local horse rescue, and we’re considering options regarding our activities there as well. Hopefully some of these things will help boost team membership.”
Recoder reflected on the importance of the equestrian club to her Vassar experience: “I had never expected to have this opportunity to pursue my passion for horseback riding as a college student, and in doing so I have gained so much confidence in my riding ability.”
Recoder concluded, “It has been such a great release for me, especially during really stressful times, just to be able to get some fresh air and spend time around the horses.” Yet, it remains to be seen whether future students will be able to appreciate these small pleasures too.