IEA gives middle school and high school kids a chance to take the reins

By Nancy Jaffer
May 5, 2017

The 50th anniversary of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association is being celebrated this weekend at its national championship show in Kentucky. IHSA, begun by Robert Cacchione at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University, has grown to involve 10,000 riders at 400 colleges and inspired start-ups of similar, smaller groups outside the hunt seat and western disciplines, such as dressage and saddle-seat.

But one that has followed the IHSA template and taken off big time is the Interscholastic Equestrian Association, which Cacchione sees as a feeder organization for IHSA. Myron Leff, a founder of IEA with Roxane Durant, Wayne Ackerer, Timothy Boone and Ollie Griffith, considers Cacchione the “grandfather” of IEA, which is 15 years old and, he advises, the largest youth equestrian association in the country.

Of Cacchione, Leff  commented, “He gave us permission to mimic IHSA.” IEA has an amazing 13,500 participants in hunt seat and western. It obviously was an idea whose time had come.

Camaraderie is a big part of the IEA experience.

For kids who don’t have their own horses, or can’t afford the expense or time of doing the big horse shows, IEA offers a route for riding.

There are middle school and high school teams across the U.S. involved with the IEA format, open to riders in grades six through high school. Riders pick school horses by lot at various competition venues, so no one has an advantage and catch-riding skills are a must.

Teams can be formed by schools or barns. There are 55 IEA teams in New Jersey, and the response has been so impressive that the Zone 2 team, which was New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, is having a spin-off. The new Zone 11 will involve New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, with approximately 1,411 riders.

IEA does more than offer participants a team experience. It also gives many students who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to compete the opportunity to ride, learn and show. That rang a bell with Kathryn Colao of Summit, whose sons had outlets in Little League and Pop Warner football.

Similarly, IEA gave her daughter, Liz, a way to be involved with a sport she loves, without having to own a horse.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Kathryn.

“It’s very equitable. People draw from the same pool of horses, so no one is showing up with their $250,000 horse and special trainer.” She pointed out that it’s not a one-off show here and there; rather, it’s a process that goes on through the season as a team builds its strength and riders seek to qualify through zone and regional competitions for the nationals, held last month at the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, Va.

When her friends asked what IEA was, Kathryn replied, “It’s not Springsteen’s daughter or Bloomberg’s daughter in Florida with their horses. It’s a lot more accessible than that. It’s a really good opportunity.”

The most successful effort at nationals by Jerseyans involved Liz and her friend Olivia Hennessy of Basking Ridge, both members of the True Heart Stables team organized by trainer Torri Siegel Dragos, who is moving her operation that includes 12 school horses from Hunterdon County to Bedminster this month.

Liz, a 15-year-old sophomore at Summit High, took the title in the Junior Varsity Beginner on the Flat category, while Olivia, a 15-year-old freshman at Mount Saint Mary Academy in Watchung was runner-up.

“It was a very big proud moment for sure,” said Torri.

Champion Liz Colao and reserve champ Olivia Hennessy with trainer Torri Dragos.

“It makes me feel a lot more accomplished and that I was better than I ever thought I was,” said Liz, who was nine when she began riding at Union County’s Watchung Stables.  And being there with Olivia, “made it a lot more fun and meaningful,” she commented.

Assessing the overall impact of the program, Liz said, “IEA really connected me with the people at my barn.”

“It got me to respect everything we do. It’s hard to ride new horses every single show. It taught me how to ride all different types of horses.”

Like many of the IEA participants, she plans to ride with IHSA when she goes to college.

Liz Colao

Olivia’s mother, Tracy Hennessy, said, “I love the team concept, the camaraderie among the girls. We’ve been very impressed.” Discussing the way her daughter finished at nationals, she observed, “I was floored. It was totally unexpected, but we were beyond thrilled. She just wanted to make the first cut so when she ended up getting reserve champion, we were really amazed and proud.”

Olivia, who began riding at Shannon Hill Stables in Basking Ridge, said it was “such a good feeling” when only she and Liz were left in the lineup to be pinned.

“I would have been so happy getting a ribbon at nationals; I never would have thought of getting reserve champion. Knowing I can get on a random horse that I’ve never ridden before, show and then place well and get to regionals, zones and nationals has done wonders for my confidence,” Olivia reflected.

Like Liz, she would like to ride with IHSA when she goes to college; that might even be a deciding factor.

“I just love to ride,” she said.

Olivia Hennessy

Torri grew up at her family’s Snowbird Farm in Long Valley, where “it was always a bunch of girls and we had so much going on all the time. When I started my own operation, things got so small. I was used to being really busy. But I had kids, and I had to be home by 3 p.m. to meet the bus, so there was no chance of me having any juniors (riders) because they all want to ride after school.”

As a result, her business primarily involved teaching adults. Then three years ago, with more freedom as her own children got more independent, she heard about IEA. She needed three kids to start a team and recruited them.

“It was fun. We had a good time, but I didn’t have any idea what I was doing,” said Torri, who now has 21 girls on her team.

By the second year, however, “We got a little serious. We made it to nationals. Some of the girls were better than others, but it really comes down to the luck of the draw. You draw a good horse, there’s a much better chance.”

Her middle school team made it through last year; this year, it was individuals, rather than a team, that got to nationals under Torri’s direction.

“It’s a chance to get into a stadium. It’s a chance to go back to my Snowbird roots; most of those kids rode school horses. It’s very familiar, and for me, it’s a good niche,” said Torri.

Asked about Liz and Olivia’s performances, Torri said, “We prepared, we did so many extra practices. They just nailed it.”

But it was tense waiting for the results.

“Until they pin the class, you never know,” she commented, saying the awards were announced one by one, from the lowest to the highest.

“When they called third place, and it wasn’t either one of my girls, we have a video of them hugging when they knew it was the two of them at the end. I was crying. It was a beautiful thing. If you have one good rider, you feel like you get lucky. But when you have two and make it all the way after working so hard…for me, it was very rewarding. And it was on live feed so everybody at home could see it. We started getting texts right away.”

Torri described IEA as a grassroots program, “because it’s teaching kids how to ride, how to get on any horse and be a competitor. I love being a part of it and being able to share the show world with kids who in other circumstances might not be able to get in the show ring.”

No New Jersey teams qualified for nationals, but three other individual riders from New Jersey also took part in the show.

Katherine Titus was fifth in Varsity Open over 2-6 fences Individual. She also was seventh in the Varsity Open Championship Class. She rides with Atlantic Cape Equestrians in Woodbine.

From The Ridge in Lebanon, Amanda Tom placed eighth in varsity intermediate over 2-foot fences and Taylor Pruitt of the Southern New Jersey team participated as well.

For more information on IEA, go to www.rideiea.org

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