Which Youth Riding Team is Right?

Picking a riding team for your child can be a hard task. We talk to six experts who can help you make a decision that’s best for your family.

Riding teams are a fantastic way for children to meet other horse-crazy kids, and develop as riders and horsemen and -women. But there are so many different options, how do you choose the right one? 

Whether you’re an experienced horse owner looking for a way to introduce your kid to new events or this will be your family’s first venture into the horse industry, there are several ways to get involved. But it all comes down to how much you want to commit to the sport and what you want your child to get out of it.

For Young Riders 

Youth riding teams are typically run out of a boarding or training barn and don’t require you to own anything but properly fitted riding attire. The coaches provide the horses, tack, facility, and anything else needed to ride, and students take riding lessons once a week to learn the basics of riding and handling horses.  

“Most of our team members don’t own their own horses. We train out of an all-around training and lesson barn, so they use all of the facility’s horses, tack, and equipment when they ride,” says Bailey Dolimpio, a volunteer coach for the Central Florida Equestrian Team.

Children who join riding teams become immersed in the horse world quickly, and if they want to, they can start showing with their team. This might sound daunting and expensive, but with a youth team, it’s not as scary as it sounds. Shows are hosted by other teams and all that’s required by the parent is transportation to the show. The team hosting the show will provide the horses, tack, and facility. 

IEA members compete on randomly assigned horses that they have not ridden before. Photo by Larry Williams Photography Courtesy of the IEA

When show day comes around, the team arrives at the facility the morning of and gets ready to show. The coaches attend a meeting where their riders are randomly assigned a horse and then the coaches are given tips for riding the selected horses. The coaches and riders will also have the chance to watch their assigned horses in the warmup before the show begins. 

“Our riders are well-rehearsed in riding a wide variety of horses and have the confidence needed to compete without knowing their mount,” says IEA Director of Marketing Kimber Whanger. “I love what it has done for my own daughter’s riding skills.” 

Youth riding teams have different divisions based on a rider’s age and skill level. So, a 10-year-old won’t be asked to show against a 16-year-old who has been riding for years. Coaches place their students in the division they see fit where they’ll compete against other riders similar in age and riding experience. 

“The nice part about these catch-riding organizations is that you get kids from all different backgrounds and experiences. We talk to each rider about what they’ve done and their showing background and then watch them ride,” Dolimpio explains. “The main points to look for are their hands, seat, and legs. Those are big indicators of what division we’ll place them in.”

The associations that host these shows place horses in each division based on the level of difficulty and experience of the riders. So, the beginner divisions will always have beginner-safe horses that have most likely been part of lesson programs and are used to working with inexperienced riders. Stewards will also be present during the show, monitoring the horses and keeping an eye out for any safety hazards they might see to ensure that everyone stays safe.

“We want these kids to have fun and be successful with safety being the top priority. Every show we go to there are safe horses and knowledgeable coaches and volunteers around to help the students every step of the way,” says Dolimpio. 

To learn more about if a riding team is right for your family, here are two popular associations to look at. While these programs look similar from the outside, they do have their differences. 

The Youth Equestrian Development Association, or YEDA, is a program that encourages the development of riders’ skills, emphasizes exposure to scholarship opportunities, and encourages making connections with college programs. Their goal is to develop youth riders into complete horsemen and -women by offering a variety of levels and divisions of varying difficulties. They offer horsemanship rail and pattern classes for all divisions including walk-trot classes for beginners, plus their more advanced riders have the opportunity to compete in ranch riding and reining. 

Here are some things to know about YEDA: 

  • Riders must be in grades 4 through 12 to compete. 
  • All riders wear a uniform oxford shirt purchased through YEDA. 
  • Beginner walk-trot classes are offered for all ages. 
  • More than $100,000 in scholarships are offered each season. 
  • Has a “Try It Program” that allows first-time teams and riders a discounted membership.
  • Offers divisions for riders with disabilities. 

For more information on YEDA and to look for a team near you, visit showyeda.com

The Interscholastic Equestrian Association, or IEA, was established to provide competitive and educational opportunities through equestrian athletics. Their goal is for riders to develop competitive riding skills while making memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. Like YEDA, they offer Western classes for all skill levels with horsemanship, ranch riding, and reining classes. IEA also offers English and dressage classes. 

Some things to know about IEA: 

  • Riders in grades 4 through 12 are eligible to compete. 
  • Riders must provide their own show clothes; a uniform is not required. 
  • ASTM/SEI helmets are mandatory for all 4th- and 5th-grade riders and in all beginner divisions. 
  • Horsemanship classes are primarily rail classes without patterns. 
  • Numerous scholarship opportunities available. 

For more information on IEA and how to join a team, visit rideiea.org

For College Students

There are also ways kids can continue to ride and compete throughout their college education. 

The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, or IHSA, welcomes all genders to compete in their respective discipline individually or on a team. These programs are like YEDA and IEA, and many riders who compete in those associations will continue to show in college through IHSA. The shows are run almost identically to the youth organizations where the horses and tack are provided by the school hosting the show, and riders will be randomly assigned a horse at the start of the competition.

“At first it can be a little overwhelming getting on a randomly assigned horse and be expected to go show it without any warmup,” shares Hannah Duncan, a member of the University of Central Florida Equestrian Team. “But the more catch-riding practice you get, the easier it becomes. Our coaches watch the horses and talk with the horse providers to get as much information as possible.” 

Learn more: Saddle Up, Students!

Teams can qualify for the IEA National Finals and compete to be the overall champion team. The King Show Horses Equestrian Team was the overall champion Western team at the IEA National Finals in 2021. Photo by Larry Williams Photography Courtesy of the IEA

The judges of these catch-riding style competitions understand that the riders don’t have any experience with their mounts. They’re given the same information about each horse as the competitors, which allows the judge to evaluate how each rider is able to present their horse in competition. 

“When competing in an IHSA show, a rider should first understand that the emphasis is on their ability, as a horseman, and less on the quality of horse that’s drawn,” says Conner Smith, head Western coach of the Midway University Equestrian Team. 

With walk-trot divisions, IHSA is beginner-friendly, and allows students to learn how to ride and show in a safe and affordable environment. The riders in the beginner division generally have the same amount of experience, and the horses used in the walk-trot classes are suitable for beginners. 

“When I first joined IHSA as a beginner, I could count on two hands how many times I’d ever been on a horse,” says Jennifer Charles-Hinds, a member of the University of Central Florida Equestrian Club. “This program cracked open a whole new world for me; everything from riding itself and basic horsemanship to learning to show to little things like how you wear your hair for a horsemanship class. During my time showing IHSA, I learned to lope and was able to move up from the beginner division throughout my college career. It’s one of my fondest college memories.”

As riders compete throughout a season, they earn individual points, which helps them qualify for post-season events like regionals and nationals. The number of points needed depends on the division and region these students ride in, but if a student earns enough points to qualify for a post-season event, they will automatically be moved to the next division the following year. 

Team members are placed in their divisions based on an online assessment that all IHSA riders take before joining the association. The test asks questions about the riders’ experience and accomplishments. But the coaches have final say after evaluating the rider in person to make sure they’re placed in the appropriate division. 

Beginners compete in horsemanship classes with a rail and pattern portion. Once they’ve moved up to more advanced classes, they can choose to compete in ranch riding and reining, in addition to horsemanship. 

Things to know about IHSA: 

  • Full-time undergraduate students are eligible to compete. 
  • A uniform is not required so riders must provide their own show clothing. 
  • A new team or rider must fill out an application by either the team coach or the official school representative. 
  • Each school has different membership requirements that are not sanctioned by IHSA. 
  • Scholarship and academic award opportunities available through IHSA.

Something important to note about IHSA is that each school has their own protocol for their teams. Visit ihsainc.com to find schools with teams or for information on starting one. 

Another option for students to compete in college is by joining a National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) team. These teams are only offered at universities in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and are only offered to female riders. 

NCEA teams are for advanced riders, and don’t offer beginner or novice classes. Riders will have experience competing in horsemanship and/or reining before joining a team, and the coaches will look at a rider’s previous riding and show background when considering them for their team. 

“I always have an ear to the ground regarding recruits. I read show results, attend competitions to observe prospective student-athletes in action, and watch live feeds of major competitions,” says Brad Kearns, head Western coach of the Southern Methodist University Equestrian Team. 

It isn’t necessary for a student to be a highly competitive youth rider to join an NCEA team. Coaches take into consideration the student’s riding ability, as well as their attitude, sportsmanship, and overall horsemanship skills. 

“Of course, an athlete will get on the radar of coaches quickly if they win or do well at a large event, but it’s not necessary to have won a major event to be recruited or be on a team. Good basic riding skills and natural horsemanship instincts are key,” explains Kearns. 

The best way to inquire about joining a team is by calling or emailing the school’s coach to see what their requirements are for joining. However, they must wait until after their sophomore year of high school before officially contacting a coach about joining a team. 

“Google is a wonderful thing; a person can search the school of interest’s equine program, find contact information for the coaches, and reach out to them. Potential athletes can send videos of themselves in competition or practice to the coaches and spur some interest,” says Kearns. 

Like IHSA, riders compete on horses they haven’t ridden before in horsemanship and/or reining classes. The difference is that five riders from each team will be chosen to compete in a head-to-head competition against another school. Five horses are selected for each event and riders are paired with a horse by a random draw. 

Competitors can watch the horse warm-up and, unlike IHSA, are allowed four minutes to practice on the horse they were assigned before competing. Riders from opposing teams compete on the same horse and the rider with the highest score receives a point for their team. 

NCEA teams usually have more intensive practice schedules, but every school is different. Typically, students are required to attend team riding practices multiple times per week on top of  weekly workouts that involve strength conditioning and cardio training. And because students are spending so much time with their teammates between practice and traveling, they often become great friends. 

“I think that the NCEA equestrian program is a fantastic opportunity for young women in college. From the first day as a freshman on campus, these athletes have an instant friend group—a sisterhood with a common love for the animal and competition,” says Kearns. “They’re prepared to go into the workplace being confident, respectful, helpful, supportive, selfless, and adaptable. NCEA athletes find success in life because they have learned to ask what needs improvement and what they can do to contribute to the betterment of the situation.”

Things to know about NCEA: 

  • Every school has different requirements to be eligible for a team. 
  • Prospective team members must wait until after June 15th of their sophomore year of high school to speak to a coach or school about recruitment. 
  • They must also wait until August 1st of  their junior year of high school to officially visit an NCEA equestrian school.
  • Approximately 2% of student athletes receive college athletic scholarships. 
  • Teams can offer a maximum of 15 scholarships per team to riders. 
  • Team members can receive non-athletic aid and scholarships. 

Check your child’s eligibility and find recruitment information for each school at collegiateequestrian.com.

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