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Letterman jackets and varsity letters have long been a tradition of the American high school experience. Whether it’s from track and field or basketball, earning your letter and wearing it proudly is a rite of passage but until recently, equestrian student athletes were left out of these acknowledged ranks. Today’s equestrians have more opportunities than ever before to compete on interscholastic equestrian teams and now thanks to the United States Equestrian Federation’s increasingly popular High School Equestrian Athlete program, teens interested in earning their letter in equestrian have got it made.
The USEF High School Equestrian Athlete program began in the fall of 2009 and was born out of a growing number of high school students wanting their sport of choice—equestrian—to get the same recognition as all the other traditionally recognized sports. “What initiated the program,” says Jennifer Mellenkamp, Director of National Breed/Discipline Affiliates and Youth Programs at the USEF, “was simply supply and demand. We were receiving phone calls from parents saying, ‘is there anything offered that would recognize high school equestrian athletes? They spend just as much time training or competing as football and basketball players,’” recalls Mellenkamp.
The program quickly found its stride, and the response has been overwhelming. “Right now we have nearly 5,000 students enrolled.” says Mellenkamp. “Parents have told us the school systems don’t understand the training and dedication that is involved to be an equestrian athlete” adds Mellenkamp, “and there is often no recognition for these athletes within their school systems. We felt we needed to start something to give all equestrian athletes the acknowledgement they deserve.”
The USEF High School Equestrian Athlete program was created as a means for students to receive recognition for their individual achievements regardless of if their school recognizes equestrian as a sport. Students are responsible for tracking their own hours and competitions which means support from the student’s school is not necessary to participate. Individuals who do compete interscholastically are able to use their team practice hours and competitions towards meeting the annual requirements. The program does provide schools with updates and information about the students. “We’re hoping this will initiate conversations with the schools,” says Mellenkamp, “and that they will start taking notice of the equestrians that are enrolled.”
The requirements for the USEF High School Equestrian Athlete program are simple: High school students must belong to USEF, log at least 100 hours of time training and participate in three competitions during the program year. If you’re currently enrolled in grades 9-12 and just now hearing about the program, you’re not too late to get started and earn a letter for all four years. The program was expanded to allow any current high school student the opportunity to earn a varsity letter retroactively. You can also get started in the middle of the program year, which runs from June 1 through May 31, and use hours and competitions from before you enrolled.
The benefits of the program reach far beyond the varsity letterman patch, lapel pin, and Certificate of Achievement students receive upon completing the program. Laura Orr of Topsail Beach, NC completed all four years of the program and described it as “an avenue through which kids in the equestrian sport can verify the time, sweat, hard work, victories and losses they have experienced as part of the world of horses. It’s how the girl who takes her math assignments to every show, the young man that spends his time between classes studying Chemistry, and the homeschooled kid can be part of something bigger than themselves."
Skylar Rowan of Knoxville, TN was another student enrolled in the program. When asked what the USEF High School Equestrian Athlete program meant to her, Rowan responded, "What the (program) has given to me is validation and recognition from those who truly understand this amazing sport. By earning my varsity letter every year, I can also say to the world that I am an athlete... not just the girl who leaves school every day to 'ride horses.' Riding is my life, my passion and my sport. Yes, it would be great if my school was able to recognize me in the way that they do the other student athletes. But because of the USEF High School Equestrian Athlete program, I now feel every bit as empowered as those that parade across the stage each May to pick up a letter."