For collegiate equestrian coaches all across the country, this is quite the time of year. After around five to six months of no team competition, it's almost time for another season to start up.
With a new season come new dreams, and each team believes they have what it takes to have a special season.
After all, everyone is currently undefeated, right?
Prior to departing for the summer, coaches tell their riders to not let up after the collegiate season is over. In this sport, you can't take the summer months off. It's critical to continue to ride and perfect your craft in various competitions, of which there are plenty during that time of year. The teams that have riders who take advantage of the "offseason" to get better are usually the ones that start the year off strong and set the tone for what could be that special year all coaches dream of.
Last year's collegiate equestrian season was one full of excitement, and it culminated in a NCEA National Championship that was one for the ages. The 12-team competition featured plenty of surprises, and TCU and Texas A&M were able to knock off higher-seeded teams to advance to the semifinals. There, No. 1 Auburn was able to edge out the Aggies, and sixth-seeded TCU pulled off an incredible upset of second-seeded Georgia to make the Championship final, becoming the lowest seeded team to do so under the current format.
In the Championship final, the Horned Frogs held the lead at the halfway point, but the top-ranked Tigers stormed back to take the win and the national title. TCU's charge to the final from the middle of the pack shows that it's anyone's game, as long as you are able to perform when it matters most.
"We think it absolutely will be energy that we can carry over into the start of this year," TCU head coach Haley Schoolfield said of last year's strong finish. "Now we have a situation where not only our athletes are being told they can be the best and compete with the best, now they've proved it to themselves."
Entering this season, there is once again many teams who could finish the year on top. In the SEC, Georgia and Texas A&M will again be very strong, and perennial national contenders South Carolina will look to bounce back from a rare down year. In addition, the defending national champion Tigers will have a great opportunity to repeat their success from last season.
In the Big-12, the Horned Frogs bring back a talented, confident bunch to contend with Oklahoma State and Baylor, both of whom were top-four seeds at nationals this past spring. Any three of those teams could win the National Championship, and that conference race should be extremely fun to watch.
In the always competitive United Equestrian Conference, New Mexico State returns as the defending conference champions, and should once again contend for a title with a strong returning bunch, particularly on the Hunt Seat side. Delaware State, Fresno State and SMU gave the UEC four representatives at nationals last season, and all four will look to make even more noise this year. In fact, all four teams have impressive resumés when it comes to returning talent. Delaware State returns all eight starting Hunt Seat riders back from the NCEA National Championship meet while SMU returns all eight Western starters. Meanwhile, Fresno, the 2015 UEC champions, lost just one starter from last year's entire team.
South Dakota State is also another team to keep an eye on as the Jackrabbits return all three NCEA All-American honorable mention riders from the spring. Senior Kelsey Swainston is already the school's all-time leader in Horsemanship wins, and she leads a team that hopes to break into the NCEA National Championship next spring. The same holds true for Tennessee-Martin, who advanced to the UEC conference championship against New Mexico State last year and brings back a young, but talented group.
As TCU showed, any one of the teams mentioned could put everything together at just the right time to make a memorable end-of-the-season run. It's all about having belief in your team.
With that being said, below is a short list of five teams to keep an eye on this year. As mentioned before, there's no telling who will finish in April on top of the equestrian world. This is just a brief capsule on five teams that have a good mix of returning talent and impressive results from last season.
Any preseason list has to start with the defending champions. As is the case with every team who wins a National Championship, the Tigers were loaded with talent last season as three riders earned first-team All-American honors. Two of those graduated, but Caitlin Boyle is back for another season on the Hunt Seat side.
While the Tigers lost the aforementioned first-team All-Americans, four riders that all were second-team All-Americans last year are back and will make a strong push for first team nods this season. In addition, head coach Greg Williams has been pleased with the freshmen class so far.
"We lost one of our starters from the Hunt Seat side at nationals, a tremendous starter in Elizabeth Benson, and I don't want to say you fill her shoes, but we've got a couple great ones in that should shore that up fine," Williams said. "We had an All-American sitting on the bench at nationals, just because you go down to four spots."
Fresh off a year where they were the No. 2 seed in the NCEA National Championship, the Bulldogs enter this season looking to get back to the championship final, a place they're all too familiar with. First-team All-American Bailey Anderson returns to anchor the group, and the Bulldogs will also have Liza Finsness, Meg O'Mara and Graysen Stroud. All four claimed SEC Riders of the Year awards a season ago.
All in all, four Hunt Seat starters and six Western starters return for Georgia, and head coach Meghan Boenig has been extremely impressed with how her athletes have approached camp so far.
"I think we're always excited because you see so much promise and possibility, but I have to say this year is extremely exciting because the tone of the team is incredible," Boenig said. "The first part of their mantra is to outwork, and I see that in every instance, whether it be in weight training, whether it be attention to horses (or) in practice. I have not seen us in 16 years come on like this in the beginning, so this is an unusual start and one where I'm just very excited about."
The Bears are coming off an impressive 13-win season, and are poised to possibly do even more damage this season with a talented group of returners. Baylor has one of the best Equitation on the Flat lineups in the nation, thanks to first-team All-Americans Alicia Gasser and Savannah Jenkins.
Jenkins was also a second-team All-American in Equitation over Fences while flat rider Rachel Van Allen and Horsemanship rider Charlotte Green also earned second-team nods last year.
Head coach Ellen White said the All-American experience will be pivotal for her team this season as they try to make a deeper push at nationals, which the Bears will host yet again.
"If you make All-American, you're winning a lot of meets, and that's just a mentality that you have to have," White said. "That's a tough mentality to know what it takes to win. My goal is that they continue to pass that on to our younger riders, and the whole team gets up to that level."
As mentioned before, the Horned Frogs made an incredible run at the NCEA National Championship last spring, and they hope to carry that momentum into this season. They will certainly have the talent to do so, and that all starts with stud Molly Peddicord, a first-team All-American in fences and honorable mention in flat. She isn't the only returning first-team All-American, however, as on the Western side Megan McMullen returns.
Despite the strong finish to last season, TCU finished with just a .500 overall record and had one win in the Big-12. However, it appeared the Horned Frogs clicked at the end of the season and with the returning pieces, they should be in great position to have a strong season from start to finish.
"It's really, really great to have such strong leadership in our upperclassmen, including Molly and definitely Megan McMullen as well," said head coach Haley Schoolfield, the 2016 NCEA Coach of the Year.
In terms of sheer numbers, the Bulldogs of the United Equestrian Conference may have the most impressive returning class of any team in the country. Most teams consider it a blessing if they have to replace just one starter in Hunt Seat or Western. However, the Bulldogs only have to replace one starter, Reining rider Sydney Elliott, on the entire team.
The Bulldogs have a pair of returning first-team All-Americans in Taylor Brown and Sierra Swagger, and Horsemanship rider Taylor Dixon was on the second team a season ago.
Head coach Eric Hubbard is obviously excited about how this year's team is shaping up, and said he shouldn't have to worry about any of his riders facing anything they haven't seen before.
"It's very important to us because the nerves have gone away from that first initial National Championship," said Hubbard, whose Bulldogs were seeded 12th at nationals last year. "They've traveled for a season (and) they're recognizing horses at places."