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US Equestrian Members are Making it Happen

by Glenye Cain Oakford | Jan 10, 2019, 6:05 PM EST

All around the country, US Equestrian members are having a positive impact on horse sports and breeds, as well as on their communities. They’re teaching lessons, launching youth and amateur programs, volunteering at competitions, serving on their breeds’ boards and committees, and much more. At US Equestrian’s 2019 Annual Meeting, we caught up with three members who described how their organizations are introducing people to the equestrian life and building bridges—between disciplines, between equestrians and their local communities, and among horse-lovers separated by geography.

The Metropolitan Equestrian Team
Credit: Courtesy of Jane DaCosta/Metropolitan Equestrian Team

Equestrian and Life Opportunities

For Jane DaCosta and Elizabeth Kee, New York City is horse country. Brooklyn native DaCosta and Manhattan resident Kee run the Metropolitan Equestrian Team, a non-profit equestrian program for hunter jumper and dressage that’s based at the 400-acre Jamaica Bay Riding Academy in Brooklyn.

The Metropolitan Equestrian Team doesn’t just introduce urban kids to riding and competition. It gives these students serious preparation for college and cultivates life skills they can use well into their careers.

MET is focused on opportunity and achievement, both in the saddle and out of it. The group takes both sides of the equation—equestrian sport and college education—seriously, promoting both academics and horsemanship.

As the non-profit’s website puts it, MET “is committed to cultivating young, aspiring athletes by developing their talents through training and exposure in various local and national competitions. … Our goal is to inform and educate student riders about the many college opportunities and various formats of college equestrian programs, as well as to provide riders with resources to help them create their desired college equestrian experience.”

The program serves about 40 kids in grades three through 12, all resident in New York, who compete in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association and the Athletic Equestrian League.

“There are kids in our program who can afford to ride, and there are children who can’t afford to ride,” said DaCosta, MET’s executive director, as well as a riding coach. “Our focus is to always have everyone together in one melting pot. It doesn’t matter what level of riding you’re at, because we all have the same goal: to change the children’s vision from ‘if I’m going to college’ to ‘where I’m going to college,’ and to incorporate horse sports into that.”

The idea is to put kids in a position to secure merit-based scholarships and help launch them into their post-education careers as rising leaders. To date, MET kids have earned more than $500,000 in college scholarship opportunities, and they’ve done it without competing on pricey horses or with support from wealthy family members.

“Equestrian sports can be very expensive, but we want people to know that you don’t have to have all this money even to get to the Olympics,” explained DaCosta. “You don’t have to own a horse to be successful in this industry.”

The program is tuition-based, but MET is committed to making tuition possible, says MET president Elizabeth Kee.

“We work with every parent,” Kee explained. “Any parent who comes to us and says, ‘I really want my child involved in this sport,’ we either go out and get funding for the child or work with the parent if they need a payment plan. We have private funding, and we have a city program that we’re also working with this year, and we also find ways to do individual fundraising.”

MET is helping kids achieve their college dreams without sacrificing their riding. “The Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association provides a beautiful avenue of over 450 colleges to help you be able to ride, whether it be at club level or varsity level,” DaCosta said.

DaCosta, who describes her upbringing as “very poor” financially, knows firsthand how much kids can gain from horse sports. She stumbled across a riding opportunity serendipitously when she happened to spot a stable one day on a bike ride in Prospect Park. There, she met a police officer who offered DaCosta riding lessons in exchange for help caring for her horse.

 “I was wayward,” DaCosta said, “but every time I got in trouble, she’d find a way to beat my behind and get me back in the barn. If I was in the barn, I wasn’t getting in trouble, so she made sure I was always in the barn.”

The experience was transformational. DaCosta eventually competed up to the 3’ level, joined the Navy, studied to become an attorney, and, in 2010 after a layoff during the economic downturn, decided to take a chance on a dream and established the Metropolitan Equestrian Team.

“If it wasn’t for horses, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said, noting that the responsibility and discipline children learn from caring for and competing horses lasts outside the stable gates.

“Yes, we want our kids to be great riders,” she said, “but we also want them to be great leaders. I want these kids to understand that they are in control of their own destinies.”

For interscholastic and intercollegiate equestrian resources, including information about grants and scholarships, visit usef.org’s Youth Programs page.

Building Connections

At the Welsh Pony and Cob Society of America, US Equestrian’s affiliate organization for the breed, young equestrians have played an important role in promoting Welsh ponies and cobs and helping to build bridges with other equestrians.

“We’re blessed that we have a pretty active youth group,” said the Welsh Pony and Cob Society of America’s president, Dr. Ruth Wilburn. “But they’re spread out across the country, and the way they keep together is through Instagram. They even made an Instagram account for me! They go to these different shows and get together there, and one of the kids who rides with us, Alex Clark, decided that she wanted to make a video about why people love their Welsh ponies.”

Clark put out the call for content, and her fellow equestrians responded with a flood of photos and videos showing everything from backyard ponies to show-ring champions.

“It got bigger and bigger,” Wilburn said, “and they actually showed it at the American National on the Jumbotron. It’s also up on our website. It’s got kids of all ages, from the West Coast, the East Coast, and the Midwest, all saying why they love their Welsh ponies. Some talk about the friends they’ve made through their ponies, others talk about how having the ponies has helped them reach goals. In this day and time when kids are so spread out and so busy—as much as I sometimes wish kids wouldn’t always have their heads buried in their phones, this was actually such a good thing! Horses help keep us grounded, and I’m so glad the kids understand that.

“This is one great way to connect kids that I never would have thought of, and they did it all on their own.”

Check out the kids’ Instagram account, @ForeverWelshKids, here. See the video here.

This kind of bridge-building is crucial, and not just between equestrians involved in the same breed or discipline. Wilburn notes that her local carriage driving club, the Nashoba Carriage Association, also has partnered with other equestrian groups, like a sidesaddle organization, to put on horse shows. And Wilburn says that supporting charities, such as WarHorses for Heroes and Angel Heart Farm, also has brought joy to new equestrians, further building equestrian community.

“You bring in a different group of people,” Wilburn said. “That’s another way to expand the equestrian community.”

It creates win-win situations in other ways, too. The WarHorses for Heroes members have volunteered at driving shows, for example.

“We do a Welsh of the Year Award, and for the last two years, two different ponies--Clovercroft's Rocky Too and Loafer's Lodge Katarina--have come from Tracy Kujawa's Angel Heart Farm in Nashville, Tenn.,” Wilburn said. “They help pediatric cancer patients. They came to Tulsa with the ponies, where we gave the awards, and she also did a video for us to thank us for our support of her program. It was a nice thing for us to be able to share, and it also shows what these Welsh ponies can do. And it shows that horses have another important place in our lives by helping people, too.”

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