Equestrian Scholarships: What to Know

Collegiate Rider

As a high school rider, you may be able to turn your skills into scholarship money for college- if you prepare wisely. Here we’ve outlined the basics, and pinpointed your immediate priorities for success.

As explained in last week’s Horse Show Leases blog post, there are two main collegiate Hunter Seat Equitation-based riding programs: NCEA (which falls under the umbrella and rules of the NCAA) and IHSA (Intercollegiate Horse Show Association). The process for becoming part of the two programs is completely different.

NCEA Riding

The National Collegiate Equestrian Association is considered an “emerging sport” under NCAA, which means that it is a provisional NCAA sport.  A number of sports were categorized this way in order to give female athletes the ability to have equal recognition in the NCAA. This is why it is a sport for ladies only.  Currently, there are 23 schools, and about 1000 riders in the NCEA. Leaders of the organization are working to solidify the status of Equestrian Sports.

For NCEA, there are Division I, Division II, and Division III schools.   In total, there are 23 colleges and universities with NCEA teams. For the schools in Division I and Division II, per NCAA rules, they are allowed to give out the equivalent of 15 full-ride scholarships per school.  However, they are allowed to break these up among more than 15 athletes, and often do. The average team has 40 riders, so some riders earn a place on the team, but little to no scholarship money.

NCEA Recruitment

For NCEA teams, coaches make a big effort to recruit high-profile riders.  Coaches will go to the biggest shows in the country and watch “Big Eq” classes, identifying riders with a high degree of skill and inviting them to visit their school.  Although riders may only participate in “official visits” (in which all expenses are paid by the school) after September 1 of their junior year, riders can visit unofficially (on their own dime) freshman and sophomore year.  However, they may not speak to coaches at this time.

NCEA Competition is geared only toward the highest level of riders, so if you want to be on such a team, you must have an impressive show record, which shows versatility, consistency, and winning results. Also, since all riding in college is based on Equitation, coaches love to see riders who have been competitive especially in Big Eq classes- like the USEF Talent Search and ASPCA Maclay.

A less common occurrence is that a walk-on rider can earn a place on the team. Through steady improvement and performance they may earn some scholarship funds.  However, most riders and scholarships are decided upon almost a year in advance.

NCEA Rules

With NCEA, rules are very specific. If you fail to follow these rules, it can render you ineligible. For example, they allow the riders to win prize money- but not in excess of their expenses.  So, expenses and prize money must be carefully tracked. It’s important to understand the steps and regulations as laid out by the NCEA. There is a great deal of information on their site.

Playing by NCEA Rules is serious business. Riders must maintain their eligibility and non-pro status not just in high school, but throughout college. They also must maintain their grades, as per NCAA rules, all student athletes cannot have less than a 2.3 GPA.  Teams often hold practice 5-6 times per week, making the team a serious commitment for riders.


The IHSA is a much more inclusive program, and allows both men and women.  Its mission describes how they want to give all riders at all skills levels the opportunity to compete and participate. There are 412 colleges and universities, and 10,000 students in the IHSA.

IHSA teams don’t tend to aggressively recruit the way NCEA teams do. Instead, they usually hold tryouts after the start of  the school year. Riders come for these somewhat more laid-back events in order to let coaches see them ride, and determine in what division they would be best competing. Each school is a different process, as some schools have limited spots for the team and a high demand. Others have less demand and more availability.  For tryouts, it’s highly recommended to dress and behave professionally: be gracious and courteous.

Other advice from former IHSA riders is to start in the lowest division for which you are eligible, in order to be as competitive as possible. Then, riders can work their way up throughout their college career.  With IHSA Teams, there are less requirements, and less of a time commitment. Teams hold practice 1-3 times per week, and riders have more time to devote to academics and other extracurricular activities. Some riders who want to keep competing on the regular “A” circuit choose IHSA because it affords them time to do so, where as NCEA requires more time and focus.

The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, Inc. maintains a comprehensive regional map of college equestrian teams as well as stats on equitation class and team size.  

IHSA Scholarships

ISHA Riders can earn scholarships through the the Intercollegiate Equestrian Foundation Inc. (IEF), which is a non-profit  501(c)(3) corporation created to foster and promote intercollegiate equestrian activities through the offering of scholarships to members of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association.

Also, many schools participate in other scholarship programs for riders- for example, US Pony Club Scholarships. Also, the Interscholastic Equestrian Association even offers a Founder’s Scholarship for college-bound riders. 

The IEA is a great springboard for both NCEA and IHSA riders.  As Hairnets and Breeches blogger Sabrina Riehl says of her experience, “IEA and IHSA provides their members with unique opportunities to test their skills; riders of all levels and riding backgrounds are given the opportunity to compete on a more level playing field.”

Beyond specifically for riding, many schools offer a great variety of academic scholarship opportunities, as well as need-based programs.  By combining academic, equestrian, and financial aid resources, students can often get a healthy portion of their tuition financed.


As you prepare for your collegiate equestrian career, there are three main things on which high school riders should focus:

  1. Prioritize academics
  2. Improve as a rider with every chance you get,
  3. Do your research and know the program rules


Get started today by getting in touch with Horse Show Leases and Alicia Wilkinson, an accomplished North Carolina trainer who is an expert with #2: helping riders improve to chase down all their competitive ambitions, whether it be in the IEA, collegiate riding, or the ‘A’ circuit.


Above photo courtesy of MTN Photography.

Jenn Crow
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