They are the best University of Georgia athletic team you have likely never heard of. They have won five national titles and go into next week’s national championships one of the favorites to win it all again. Their home record is 44-1. They are a model for what all intercollegiate athletics should be, but, alas, are not. They bring great credit to their university but have had a hard time getting the recognition due them from the media and from those who claim to bleed red-and-black. They deserve better because their record is better than most of the other teams at UGA.
My friends, meet the University of Georgia equestrian team. Woof! Woof!
Since becoming the university’s 21st intercollegiate varsity sport in 2001, the equestrian program has flourished and prospered under the leadership of its first and only head coach, Meghan Boenig. Boenig, a native of Cobb County and a graduate of Berry College in Rome, has put the sport on the map.
The coach says you haven’t seen anything yet. “Our future is bright,” she told me as she prepared her team for the national championships in Waco, Texas, which begin April 17. “We continue to raise the standard for ourselves and for the sport. When we stop leading is when I need to go.” Given her accomplishments thus far, that won’t be anytime soon.
The equestrian program is no small operation. Currently, the team is composed of 65 women, 59 horses and seven staff members. Their Sanford Stadium is High Point Farm in Bishop, about 12 miles from the UGA campus. That is where the equestrian team trains and competes -- and wins.
Success breeds success and the UGA equestrian program attracts the top riders from across the United States. Forty percent of the team hails from Georgia; the rest come from states ranging from Michigan to Oregon to Utah to Rhode Island. If we are just learning about the Bulldogs’ reputation as an equestrian powerhouse, it seems the secret is out in the rest of the country.
Like athletes in other varsity sports, the equestrian team members train hard and are in peak physical condition working out daily with Mike Morrison, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, building muscle and endurance. One could argue that handling a half-ton beast with a mind of its own is perhaps more difficult than blocking a nose guard at one-third the weight and with maybe half the brain.
The team obviously spends time in the classroom as well. The University of Georgia equestrian team had 13 student-athletes named to the National Collegiate Equestrian Association’s Academic Team this year and another 21 named to the Academic Honor Roll. Five additional Georgia riders earned Academic Honorable Mention.
I asked Coach Boenig how equestrian meets work. She compares them to gymnastic competitions. Two schools compete in four events. As with gymnastics, judges give scores based on how effective the athlete is in performing her prescribed maneuvers and much of that depends on making the difficult maneuvers look effortless and flawless.
To keep the focus on the athlete, each horse is ridden twice; once by the home school and once by the visiting team. The student-athlete with the highest score on the same horse earns a point for their team. I don’t think the horse gets to vote.
The equestrian competition is divided into two parts: Hunter Seat, which includes eight to 10 jumps over 3 feet high and then nine specific maneuvers within a defined area that are performed from memory; and Western, where riders are judged by the precision with which they handle a number of difficult maneuvers including stops, spins and fast circles. I make it sound simpler than it is. In truth, it is a grueling challenge for both rider and horse.
Georgia enters the competition next week seeded third in both the Western and the Hunter Seat competition. What does Coach Boenig think of her team’s chances in the national championships? “Excellent,” she said, “This is the most motivated, hardworking and focused team I have had the privilege to coach.” I like her style.
Here’s hoping the UGA equestrian team brings a sixth national championship back home to Athens. Win or lose in Waco, these young competitors remind us that amid all the hypocrisy of big-time college athletics, there are still real student-athletes who bring honor to their university through excellence on the playing field and in the classroom. I am glad they are at my alma mater.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.