The Southeastern Conference recently added equestrian as its 21st sport, and four schools have signed up. The University of Kentucky won't be one of them for now, although it has a winning riding tradition.
That's OK with Lucy Hart, an incoming freshman from Lexington who plans to join the UK Equestrian Team, a club sport. As far as she's concerned, she will be riding for UK.
"I plan on competing on hunter/jumpers and being on equitation," Hart said recently. "I ride with Michelle already, and really, for me, it will mean just an extra lesson (each week) and going to the UK horse shows."
Michelle Zimmer, an instructor at Robert Murphy Stables, coaches both a local high school team, Select Equestrian, and the UK Equestrian Team, which competes with other colleges in the region and nationally as part of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, or IHSA.
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It offers everyone a chance to ride, from beginners to the highest levels, where the Kentucky team's had recent success.
In 2008, UK's hunt seat team won the IHSA national championship; the next year, UK was second. In 2010, UK was third and in 2011, fifth overall.
In recent years, interest in Western riding has soared, so the school now has a reinvigorated Western team under the tutelage of top Quarter Horse trainer Bennie Sargent in Georgetown.
"The nice thing about the club sports is there are all levels," Zimmer said. "So we go from walk-trot — people who usually have been riding less than three years — to 'open' riders, equivalent to SEC or NCAA or U.S. Equestrian Federation teams. We take it very seriously."
Adding equestrian sports to the UK Athletics roster has been under consideration for several years. A 2004 self-study concluded UK should add an intercollegiate sport by spring 2006, in part to meet Title IX requirements that schools offer equivalent opportunities for male and female athletes. The likely candidates were equestrian, field hockey or lacrosse. But it never happened.
The last sport UK added was fast-pitch softball in spring 1997.
"You're always examining opportunities for our females," said Mitch Barnhart, UK Athletics director. "The multimillion-dollar question in college athletics is do you add to the women's sports or do you take away from the men's side? I always want to be cognizant of the fact that Title IX was never developed to take away opportunities from young men. It was done to provide enhanced opportunities for women."
One consideration: cost.
"There are certainly people who think (equestrian) is a no-brainer," Barnhart said. "It's an expensive sport to run."
An equestrian program, which requires the school to maintain horses year-round, isn't cheap. For UK, it might mean purchasing equipment and building a training facility to match comparable SEC programs at Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M, who have competed in the National Collegiate Equestrian Association championships since 2002. UK has a stable for equine studies, but it isn't designed to accommodate riding.
"To what extent can you continue to add sports that don't generate any revenue or revenue for your program? We will continue to be a program that has two programs that fund 20. The question is how does the matrix of all that work?" Barnhart said. "We've got the most sports of anybody in the SEC right now, and I want to make sure what we have in place that we're doing the best we can possibly do with those sports.
"I don't see us adding anything at this juncture until we get everything else to what I would consider an appropriate facilities standpoint ... and support-wise."
The UK Equestrian Team is self-funded, largely by students who raise more than $80,000 a year, said Bob Coleman, an UK agriculture professor and head of the equine studies program. The school has several donated horses, who are housed and trained at private stables. Coleman is the club's volunteer faculty adviser.
The program has eight horse shows a year, in a circuit that includes clubs from the University of Louisville, University of Cincinnati, Marshall, Midway College, Morehead State, Northern Kentucky and Xavier.
It's unlikely that UK's IHSA team would go away even if the school went varsity.
One reason: men. As a varsity sport, equestrian would be open to female athletes only.
The existing program can accommodate about 80 students and presently includes several male riders who would not be able to compete on an SEC team.
"There's huge interest" among students, Coleman said. "But I don't know if they want to become SEC. It's far more structured. And what you can do outside varsity athletics is far different."
Top riders might pay their way through prize money won at outside competitions. Coleman wonders whether they could still do that.
As a varsity program, UK could offer scholarships, but they would be limited, probably fewer than 15 of them, Coleman said.
As a club sport, the UK team now gets widespread support from the horse industry, Coleman said. Sponsors include Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, Hagyard Equine Medical Institute and the Kentucky Equine Education Project. To raise money, club members often volunteer at Kentucky Horse Park events, including the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and other shows held by various breed associations.
The program has worked well for UK students for decades, Coleman said. Future decisions will require dialogue and thoughtful planning, he said.
"Are these students going to be professional riders? No. But if you want help to come here and need to get your horse fix, we can do that," he said. "If you need to smell horse sweat and leather, I can help you."