Bobby Murphy Advances Education at NCAA Varsity Equestrian National Championships
Waco, Texas - April 23, 2008 - As a horse show manager, course designer, and jumper judge, Bobby Murphy of Lexington, KY, is no stranger to equestrian competitions. He has attended the most prestigious equestrian events in the country and has watched some of the very best international shows in Europe. He is involved with the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) and was on the WEG Business Opportunities Panel last year to educate small businesses on marketing strategies pertaining to the equestrian industry.
However, this past week, Murphy experienced horse shows in a new light and discovered what he feels has been missing. By managing the NCAA Varsity Equestrian National Championships, which is the year-end finals for Varsity equestrian teams, Murphy witnessed a site unseen: riders working together, as a team, and supporting one another through thick and thin.
As an NCAA sport, the disciplines of Western and Hunter Seat Equitation are now part of the athletic program at numerous universities, and the program has made incredible strides every year. Although the shows differ greatly from the recognized competitions that hold hunter and jumper classes, these differences are possibly the key factors needed to transform hunter/jumper shows into a spectator sport.
"I'm intrigued by the ambiance of the event and the atmosphere at the finals," commented Murphy. "Being around the varsity riders this week sparked a new passion in me to help progress equestrian sport on a college level. Tack room curtains and tack boxes had school colors and logos, and flags were hanging everywhere. All of the riders wore coats with their school colors, and you could hear teams in the distance chanting their schools' fight songs. It was incredible," he said. "Parents and fans were representing their teams by wearing school gear from head to toe, and each team ate their meals together and had meetings to create their strategy for the day. Everything was team oriented. The behavior I saw was truly that of a team sport. I've never seen such unity."
Murphy feels it would benefit the hunter/jumper industry if riders attended Varsity Equestrian competitions and observed the sport from "that side of the fence." He explained, "I think they could learn a lot. At the NCAA Varsity Equestrian show, fans and teammates would cheer each other on from the grandstands as riders approached the in-gate, and a big group would meet them after their round to support them, regardless of what happened in the ring. The team stretched far beyond the riders and coaches; there were parents, fans, team vets, team athletic directors, and team photographers." Auburn's Assistant Hunt Seat Coach Lindsey Neubarth reported, "The collegiate setting, the team setting and the atmosphere are what people want to see. Young people want to have someone to cheer for; they want to know who is in the ring. People know when an Auburn girl walks in the ring, and I think that is important for hunters and jumpers to be exposed to."
After Auburn University defeated number one ranked Oklahoma State, Auburn qualified to compete against Texas A & M in the final bracket, and the show grounds lit with energy. "TV cameras were everywhere, and everyone was chanting their school's fight song. It was a moment to remember! It truly was!" exclaimed Murphy. "Huge celebrations were held back at the Auburn and Texas A & M stalls!" On the final day, Auburn came away with the overall win and secured the championship title. As National Champions for Hunter Seat Equitation, the Auburn Equestrian Team will parade their trophy this fall at one of their school's home football games and share their victory with about 100,000 Auburn fans.
With new insight into the varsity equestrian season and year-end finals, Murphy feels that hunter/jumper shows would attract more spectators if the sport was structured in a format similar to the culture of American sports, with seasons, playoffs, championships, and consistent numbers to further identify the athletes.
"In 1928 the New York Yankees decided that their players needed to have numbers so fans could recognize and follow the players on the field," explained Murphy. "Four years later, the Boston Red Sox followed the same concept. Change doesn't have to happen fast, but it does have to happen." He noted, "We have numbers for riders, but we change them every week so that the office knows who to charge what to. What if we followed the cultural norm of other sports? What if we had a structure we could build off of to improve the sport in its entirety?"
Marion Maybank, a representative of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), attended the Varsity Equestrian National Championships as the event organizer. Mayback is the director of Hunter and Collegiate Activities at the USEF, which include Pony Finals, Junior Finals, USEF Medal Finals in Harrisburg, and Varsity Equestrian. She is involved with the sport from the pony level to the junior equitation finals to the college level and has observed the sport from all angles.
Mayback commented, "I think that Varsity Equestrian is extremely beneficial to the growth of equestrian as a sport in the United States because of the team format. At Pony Finals, Junior Finals and the Medal Finals, we watch these kids compete against one another on horses they have been working with all year. At Varsity, they are on horses that are unfamiliar, and they ride as a team. No single ride can carry the team, so they are all dependent on one another. This creates a different atmosphere - one that we are used to seeing in spectator sports and one that doesn't normally exist in the horse world."
For Murphy, experiencing equestrian sport on the NCAA Varsity Equestrian level has inspired him to incorporate varsity equestrian into regular, nationally rated horse shows. He feels this combination would introduce riders to the team spirit and encouragement of varsity competition and attract more spectators. Additionally, young riders could learn more about universities with riding programs and scholarships. "I think this introduction would help colleges recruit better riders, better horses, and better sponsors," added Murphy. "Varsity Equestrian could show the industry a new way, a way that pushes us in the right direction. Maybe America would start to accept hunter/jumper competition as a sport."
Auburn Head Coach Greg Williams addressed the subject of recruiting and explained that some of the best riders out of high school are deciding on colleges at this time of year. "You can bring a recruit on an official visit, which is funded by the university, and the student will tour the school and get to know the team and the program. A recruit has a limit of five official visits, visiting one school one time."
Dottie Grubb, a rider who grew up competing at hunter/jumper competitions, now rides for the Auburn Equestrian Team. Grubb commented, "The main difference between mainstream horse shows and Varsity Equestrian is the commitment and time that is put into the sport. For me, this is no longer a profession. I am just as much an athlete as anyone else involved in the Auburn athletic program, with no exceptions," she revealed. "I never thought I would commit more time and concentration into a college team than I did competing at the highest level of national competition, but I wake up at 5 a.m. three mornings a week to workout with our football strength coaches. I am enrolled in 17 credit hour classes, I practice for three hours every day, and on top of it all keep up a mandatory GPA set by the NCAA."
She continued. "It's a real commitment, and you're 'in it to win it.' It's not about you anymore. At Auburn, we are all about the team and winning. I trained and competed with numerous teams throughout my high school career, and I have never met a group of 45 people who love each other and work together more then we do. It's not about me anymore; it's about Auburn. Every time I step in that arena, I represent the 35,000 students that attend Auburn, and that has truly changed me as a person."
"Varsity Equestrian has given me a greater appreciation for solid, consistent, good horsemanship," added Grubb. "Plenty of people compete in the mainstream circuit and can afford to buy nice horses and win. In collegiate riding, it's rare that you're going to find a horse that is so nice it's going to take away from your abilities as a rider. You have to ride and ride well to survive in the NCAA."
Murphy concluded, "On the final day of the Varsity Equestrian National Championships, a girl named Sunshine told me the quote of the day was 'Go Big or Go Home!' I wrote it on the board in the office, and I realized that this must be part of the overall goal with developing equestrian sport in this country. Guess what, Sunshine - We're going to go big."
Photo: Dottie Grubb motivates the Auburn team for the final day of competition. Photos courtesy of Bobby Murphy. Photographs may be used only in relation to this PMG press release.
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