Prepare for Collegiate Riding: ISHA and NCEA

IHSA rider

As a high school rider, you might be confused about collegiate riding, what types of opportunities exist, and how to prepare yourself for them.  With all the information and decisions regarding your collegiate experience, it can be overwhelming. Below we’ve tried to outline the basics you need to understand.

NCEA Mission

                    NCEA stands for National Collegiate Equestrian Association, and its mission, which works in concert with the mission and values of the NCAA, is to commit to “providing collegiate opportunities for female equestrian student-athletes to compete at the highest level, while embracing equity, diversity and promoting academic and competitive excellence.  Further, the Vision Statement states their objective “To be recognized globally as the premier level of competition for elite female collegiate equestrian student-athletes.”

                    Put plainly, the NCEA is the equestrian equivalent of the NCAA, and it’s somewhat more exclusive as far as chances to ride.  They more aggressively recruit riders with a winning show record, and are less likely to give all riders a chance. Just because you are on the team does not guarantee a chance to show, or even to ride.  NCEA teams are very competitive. To continue to receive funding, they have to do well- so they will always act in the best interests of the team. Also, it’s worth noting that NCEA is strictly a program for female riders- no males may be part of these teams.

NCEA Shows

        In NCEA competition, there are four classes: Hunt Seat Equitation Over Fences, Hunt Seat Equitation on the Flat, Western Horsemanship, and Reining. There are no separate skill levels- just one elite level for each division. Five riders from each school compete on the same horse in a head-to-head format. This means that at each show, only two schools are competing- like a football or basketball game. In NCEA competition, riders each have four minutes to warm up on their horse before competing. For non-jumping classes, know the flat portion of their test before the show.

Classes are always judged on Equitation (there are no hunter or jumper classes), since riders are not on their own horses.  So, they are evaluated based on their posture, strength, and riding skill alone. There are currently 23 schools that are part of the NCEA program.  Of these, 11 schools also participate in the IHSA. If you’d like to explore the NCEA further, check out

IHSA Mission

                    The IHSA is quite a different program from the NCEA. Its mission, as stated on their website,, reads: “The IHSA promotes competition for riders of all skill levels, who compete individually and as teams at regional, zone, and national levels.  The association’s founders focused on principle that any college student should be able to participate in horse shows regardless of his or her financial status or riding level. Emphasis is on learning, sportsmanship, and fun. Competition plays a role but the students’ enthusiasm and team spirit are the major factors. The objective of IHSA competition is to offer the opportunity to riders in their first years of riding as well as to students with show experience. Eliminating the expense of shipping or even owning horses puts IHSA competitions within reach of many who would otherwise miss the equestrian experience.”

        What the above tells us is that rather than prioritizing the competitive aspect above all else, the IHSA instead prioritizes allowing all riders a chance to compete.  The teams and shows allow all those who want to ride, at all levels, an opportunity. This makes it the better opportunity for riders who don’t have a commanding A-Circuit show record. They can often begin at a lower level and move up as they become comfortable.

IHSA Shows

        One of the more changing aspects of that format is the fact that at each competition, riders must “catch-ride,” or ride a horse they don’t know at all.   Plus, they have even less time to prepare. Typically there is little no no warm-up on these animals, so riders must learn to adapt very quickly.

        In contrast to NCEA, IHSA has divisions for multiple skill levels: Walk/Trot, Walk/Trot/Canter, Novice Flat, Novice Over Fences, Intermediate Flat, Intermediate Over Fences, Open Flat, and Open Over Fences. The divisions in which riders compete are based on previous riding and show experience. There are very specific rules for eligibility and is the discretion of the coach alone to choose the division for each rider according to what they feel will be most appropriate and allow maximum success.

Preparation for Joining a Collegiate Riding Team

IEA Teams

One of the best things a rider can do to prepare for collegiate riding is to join an IEA Team (Interscholastic Equestrian Association) in their local area. This is an organization, similar to IHSA, which gives middle school and high school riders an opportunity to ride and compete, with the same show format as IHSA.  Even if you’ve set your sights on the NCEA, this is a helpful supplement that allows riders the chance to ride different horses and be part of a team.

Shows, Clinics, Lessons

For NCEA, best preparation is riding and showing at the highest levels possible, riding as many different horses as possible, and compiling a very successful show record.  Also, taking as many lessons as you can, participating in clinics, anything you can do to raise the level of your education, skill, and performance.

For IHSA, the most important thing, more than a show record, is skill, experience, and sportsmanship. You do not need to try to ride at the highest levels or compile the most impressive record. Some kind of record certainly helps, however. More than anything, coaches want to see that you are a strong, confident, skillful rider no matter your mount.  And of course, that you have precise and beautiful equitation.

Study the Rules

For either NCEA or IHSA, it’s incredibly important to familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations.  These rules affect your eligibility, so it’s very important to understand them. For example, if you receive any kind of compensation for riding as a junior- or even given a small sponsorship by a local tack shop- you are completely ineligible for NCEA.  And if you compete in recognized competition (like A-shows) at higher levels, it renders you ineligible for lower levels in IHSA, giving your coach very little options for your competitive division as a rider. It’s important to understand these and other factors. Further, having a handle on these complicated procedures will give you a leg up in future competition, as well as making you indispensable to your coach and an early leader on your team.

NCEA Regulations

IHSA Regulations


Scholarships of varying amounts exist for both programs, but for both NCEA and IHSA, you must prioritize your grades!  Often a student must be both a rider and a scholar to earn- and keep- a scholarship. Check with your particular school of interest to learn more.

If you are in the Charlotte, NC area and interested in joining a winning IEA Team, as well as receiving next-level training, contact Alicia Wilkinson today:


Jenn Crow
Latest posts by Jenn Crow (see all)