The University of Georgia equestrian team has won six national titles — more than any other school — and is favored to contend for a seventh in 2016.
The level of coaching and the amount of work put in every year certainly contribute to a team’s success, but it starts with the most important, beginning building block: recruiting. While UGA gets its largest number of athletes from Georgia (18 on this year’s team), it also has a significant number from the Northeast (13).
Bulldogs head coach Meghan Boenig, whose Bulldogs are No. 2 in the National Collegiate Equestrian Association rankings behind Auburn, calls the Northeast a “powerhouse recruiting area.” She adds that riders that grew up in the North are drawn to UGA because so many of them are appreciative of warmer weather as well as the competitive atmosphere.
“Like so many others, I wanted to go to school in the South for a change of pace and wanted to experience something new,” says Emma Mandarino, a UGA freshman from Bedminster, N.J.
Georgia’s competitors in the Southeastern Conference, from which all equestrian national champions have come, aim to recruit riders from the Northeast onto their rosters as well.
South Carolina claimed its third national title in 2015, with 12 of its 38 riders from the Northeast. A year later, the Gamecocks have 39 riders on their roster, and 14 of those are from the Northeast, an overwhelming 36 percent.
Georgia has a larger total roster of 59 riders. The 13 from the Northeast comprise 22 percent. Auburn (three national titles) and Texas A&M (two) have lower percentages, but still have had a large amount of recruits from the Northeast.
Jessica Braswell, associate head coach from Auburn, says that the SEC “is largely a super competitive recruiting effort.” While some schools may have fewer riders from this area than others, it doesn’t mean that schools don’t recruit heavily from these states.
Mandarino said she has wanted to go to Georgia since early in her high school career, mainly because of “such renowned success.” She did, however, look almost exclusively at schools inside the SEC.
Alex Maracic, a UGA freshman, was born in Staten Island, N.Y., and raised in Long Island. Like the majority of riders from the area, she has been consistently traveling to Florida for the winter seasons with her horses. Maracic took online classes the entire last year of high school, dedicating Mondays and Tuesdays to school work and then essentially traveling every weekend in the four months between December and April, training and showing in Florida.
Maracic, like many other riders, didn’t have a team to compete for in high school. The appeal of going to a school, representing that school and riding for a team was high for her.
“Without doing online school, I couldn’t have dedicated as much time to riding and perfecting my craft. I went to a public school, and no one I knew really rode horses, so when I signed my letter of intent to ride, everyone was like, ‘That’s so cool,’” Maracic said.
She added: “Before that, I think everyone just thought it was just pony rides or something.”
For senior Kendall Fately, living in the same town, Basking Ridge, N.J., for 18 years made her desperately want something different, “geographically and culturally.” Fately, who didn’t even apply to schools in the North, knew from the beginning that Georgia’s program was her top school of choice.
“Georgia is such a good school, with a top-tier equestrian program at that,” Kendall says. “It’s just the full package.”
To her knowledge, not a lot of people at her high school rode horses. Instead, she made many friends at horse shows, which is a common theme among the riders from the Northeast.
Now at UGA, Kendall is part of a team that works together and shares a passion for riding.
“They’re so used to very fierce competition, so that’s nothing new to them. I think the willingness to take good, constructive criticism and be really hard workers, that’s all true from that (Northeast) area,” Boenig says.
Boenig has an personal advantage in recruiting, as well. Because her whole family was all from the Northeast originally, Boenig says that she “feels a close affinity” to her athletes from that area. Born in New Jersey, Boenig lived in New York for a short time.
She explains that her mother’s side of the family is mostly from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, while her father’s side is almost all from Connecticut. Her family has maintained a home in Massachusetts, so she visits every year.
“I certainly understand and know the area a little bit better than probably most people in Georgia, I would assume, so I think it’s a great connection,” Boenig said.
For senior Jessica Dencker, from Newburgh, N.Y., the reputation of the school is the main reason she chose to come to Georgia. She has aspirations of going to veterinary school, and the UGA animal science department has a good reputation — all while having one of the best equestrian programs in the country.
“I think they (coaches) really try and emphasize that you can be a student athlete, and in our sport that’s something you don’t really get to do. Getting to be treated like a soccer player, or a softball player, or a football player, is really different, you know. Getting to ride all these awesome horses while also getting an education — I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Dencker says.
Elizabeth Crafton is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.