For many a young equestrian, going off to college means taking an extended vacation from riding. It doesn’t have to be this way. Especially if you happen to attend one of the 410 colleges and universities with an Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) equestrian team. The IHSA gives riders from all skill levels the chance to further develop their skills while being a part of a team.

As with any other kind of riding, there are certain aspects of showing in the IHSA that are often taken for granted. Here are a few tips on what not to do when showing IHSA to make your intercollegiate experience as enjoyable and, well, interesting as possible.

1. Never underestimate the importance of walk-trot.

Sometimes, it’s up to the walk-trotter to save the day. These people are your team’s secret weapons that often make or break high point honors. When the rest of your day has not gone the way you’d hoped, but you’re still in the race for champion team, a single point from walk-trot often times makes all the difference. And, let’s face it: walk-trotters are working way harder to figure out what’s going on than the rest of us.


2. No yelling, swearing, or crying.

This should probably be a given, but occasionally the pressure of IHSA just gets to you and you have to let it out somehow. Or you’re in the walk-trot and your horse starts cantering (which feels really fast) and you have no idea what to do. Maybe you thought you had everything under control and then suddenly find yourself behind a horse with a red ribbon in its tail in the flat class. Occasionally, you lean up the neck at a trot jump and are launched pretty high in the air, which consequently ruins your chances of going to nationals. Even with the chance all of these unfortunate—and possibly scary—events or other plans that might go wrong, your team is there to support you, and you know, make up for your mistakes.


3. Never go to a show without a crop.

Many horses in IHSA don’t use spurs, and some are not particularly motivated to go forward. Your crop could be your only hope of picking up the canter (even if it’s only for a few strides). Sometimes it comes in handy as an excuse for that weird bend in your wrist. But always remember to use your stick carefully—and please do not use it before you walk into the ring! This results in disqualification (and extreme humiliation).


4. Never forget to have a good time.

Four years go by awfully quickly, and if you waste all that time putting pressure on yourself, you’ll never really experience how enjoyable riding on an IHSA team can be. They will provide you with some of your most valuable memories and always make things interesting. Getting to ride such a variety of horses is a unique opportunity that you won’t find anywhere else—and it’s a lot of fun.


5. Don’t look like a slob.

Turnout is always important regardless of where you are. Even if you’re just having a lesson, your shirt should be tucked in and your boots polished. Maybe you don’t need to put your hair up in an elaborate double-hairnet-double-hair tie thingy, but at least make an effort. People who look neat in the show ring (we’re doing equitation here, people) tend to do better than those who look like they just rolled out of bed—shocking, I know. Judges like to reward people for at least trying to look put together.


6. Don’t get cocky.

You might have won high point rider three shows in a row, but don’t get too smug. Next thing you know you’ll be on the horse that allows only one person to ride him. Or you’ll be on the mare who doesn’t appreciate your nagging leg and refuses to go anywhere in a straight line. Maybe you’ll get the horse that sucks the very life out of you just by getting him to canter. Just when you think you’ve got everything covered, that’s the moment you choose to trust the wrong horse too much and end up in the dirt. Never forget how humbling IHSA can be.


7. Never assume IHSA is over when college is.

There will be no need to cry or throw a party (depending on your feelings) at the end of your intercollegiate riding career, because no matter how hard you try, you’ll be back. Even if you move to the other side of the country, you know you’ll be warm-up riding for your team at some point in the future, or if you’re super dedicated, showing in the Alumni division. Just let it happen. Even if you don’t do either of these things, you’ll never be able to forget the great times you had showing in the IHSA.


8. Do not forget how to steer. Please.

IHSA courses can be challenging, and made even more so depending on what horse you’re riding. Always remember to use both reins and both legs to turn, because every so often, you just don’t have the power steering you’d like. I’ve seen piloting malfunctions that have ended in entire jumps being taken out more often than you would think. Some horses are greener than others, or they could just be stiff and hard to turn. These horses can be difficult, but they will teach you to be a better rider.


9. Don’t undervalue being in shape.

When the judge asks you to drop your stirrups for a 45-minute torture marathon, you should be grinning because you know you’ve got it, not crying because you know you won’t last for 5 minutes. Riding without stirrups might seem like the most excruciating activity, but trust me, if you want to get stronger, that’s the way to do it. Being in shape in and out of the saddle is so important to being a fierce competitor. It makes it much easier to get on a horse you don’t know and make the most of it if you’ve been practicing the right way.


10. Don’t overlook the fact that this is a team sport.

Even though you’re competing one at a time, you are still doing it as part of a team. Your success counts toward a collective goal, and at the end of the day, your team is proud of you no matter what. These people are there to support you and cheer you on, even when things aren’t going exactly as planned. Teammates can turn into some of your best friends and mentors, and they might also turn out to be some of the weirdest people you’ll ever meet—but that’s what makes them awesome. They are there to pick you up when you’re down and make you laugh when you thought you couldn’t anymore.