From “Cow College” to the nation’s best “Horse University:” Auburn’s national champion equestrian program now ranks as collegiate equine elite
The most annoying thing about any outsider’s good-natured trash talk about Auburn University athletics, aside from confusion over the Tigers’ mascot and “War Eagle” battle cry, has to be the idea that “Cow College” is an insult. Auburn’s agriculture and veterinary programs claim a richer and more consistent legacy than any athletic squad in the state, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with being a little bit country.
Besides, Auburn became more of a “Horse University” in 2006 when its equestrian team won its first National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) national championship. Since that culmination of coach Greg Williams’ 10-year journey from building a brand new club sport to becoming the head of a national power, he’s won four more national titles. Most recently, his team picked up a 2018 finals victory in Waco, Texas, over the South’s other equine powerhouse, the University of Georgia.
After graduating from Auburn in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in Animal Sciences, Williams went on to train and show horses and try his hand at the professional rodeo circuit. Life away from Lee County became the norm for the Auburn High grad until, as Paul “Bear” Bryant put it in the ‘50s, mama called.
“I had no intention to get out of that business so early and so young,” Williams says. “I was about to move to Oklahoma to train out there, and Auburn called and said they wanted to do something with the horse program. The thought of being able to live back in this town and raise my two daughters in this town and be able to work with students and horses…I couldn’t pass on that.”
With the backing of former head football coach and athletic director Pat Dye, Williams returned to the Plains in 1996 to start the women’s equestrian and co-ed rodeo club teams—meaning they lacked the scholarships and full financial backing offered to full-fledged varsity sports.
“(Coach Dye) and I really thought the rodeo team was probably going to be the bigger of the two,” Williams adds. “The girls just kept working, and when I was looking at who would behave more like a varsity sport, it was that group of girls. We decided to behave like a varsity team whether we were or not. We really didn’t have our sights set on varsity. We just wanted to do things right.”
The equestrian team went varsity starting with the 2002-03 season. Until 2009, Williams’ girls competed without scholarships— the program’s jump to varsity status wasn’t a Title IX necessity. Still, his scrappy teams stayed competitive with the Georgia and South Carolina programs that combined to win seven of the first 10 NCEA overall national championships. The 2006 team even knocked off the Dawgs to claim Auburn’s first national title not won on a football field or in a swimming pool.
Once scholarships came into play, Williams began pitching the beauty of Auburn’s campus and the quality of the program’s veterinary and agricultural partners to sought-after recruits. “Initially in our sport, Auburn wasn’t well known,” he says. “That’s something I’ve loved more than anything. I’m not a native, but I’m close. I grew up here, so I’m an Auburn kid. To take the sport you love and have it be known all over the country with high school kids is just a great feeling.”
The rules of equestrian competitions still aren’t well known around Auburn or anywhere else in the Deep South. Basically, the team is split into two separate squads: hunt seat and Western. The English style hunt seat competitions are based on fox hunting traditions and include judged performances on an obstacle course (in the fences) and on solid ground (on the flat). Western style is based on ranching and cowboy traditions associated with the Southwest. Those riders compete in one of two events, with horsemanship and reigning based on different sets of scored maneuvers. The team with the highest combined point total from all four types of events wins.
So far this decade, Williams has guided a dynasty as Auburn has won national titles in 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2018. This sustained success came in what might be the most Southeastern Conference-dominated field in any sport. Every other NCEA overall title has been won by one of the conference’s thee other teams: Texas A&M (2002, 2012, 2017), South Carolina (2005, 2007, 2015) and Georgia (2003, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014).
Each championship team consists of former high school standouts that competed as individuals in regional and national events. That’s how student athletes like sophomore Deanna Green, a horsemanship rider from Pilot Point, Texas, and Caitlin Boyle, a rising senior hunt seat competitor from the Chicago area, wound up in Auburn.
As the 2017-18 season progressed, Green, a five-time American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) youth world champion and the daughter of Western horse trainers, successfully transitioned from an individual performer since age 6 to a reliable teammate.
“It’s a lot of just worrying about being an asset to your team and doing more for your teammates than you necessarily would for yourself,” she says. “There’s making sure everyone’s on the same page and all of that kind of stuff. It’s not that much of an adjustment. You’ve got to just keep your team first always, which our coaches really embed in our brains.”
Green’s first year of team competition earned her All-SEC and second-team All-American honors. Most impressively, she was named the conference’s Freshman Horsemanship Co-rider of the Year.
Boyle pitched in as a freshman, as well, scoring the winning point for Auburn’s lone conference title in 2016—the SEC Tournament debuted during the 2012-13 season. When she last took the field for the Tigers, she clinched the 2018 national championship win over Georgia.
“I was kind of sad that I couldn’t be up in the stands when everyone was celebrating, but it was a really cool experience,” she says. “When I dismounted, talked to the coaches and went up to the stands, everyone was so excited because we’d just won a national championship.”
A veteran rider and two-time national champion, Boyle offered insight into some of the lesser-known rules of collegiate equestrian competitions. For example, the horses owned by the Auburn program are ridden by the home and visiting squads at home meets each fall and spring. If Auburn goes to, say, Athens, Ga., then UGA head coach Meghan Boenig’s program provides the horses. For each spring’s four-team conference and eight-team national championship tournaments, horses for both competing teams come from a third party. In each case, riders get just 4 minutes to test out an unfamiliar horse.
Home field really does breed familiarity in these scenarios, with Auburn using horses both its riders and its veterinary students and faculty—Williams calls them “the Sports Medicine Department for our four-legged athletes”—work with regularly.
“The ones that can adapt the best in college are the ones who catchride horses,” Boyle says. “If someone got injured or sick and couldn’t compete but they still want their horse to get the experience, they ask someone else to do it. I did a lot of catchriding when I was younger, which sets up perfectly. I can watch that horse warm up, and with the skills that I’ve learned, I can see what the traits—the good and bad qualities of the horse—might be. Even though I haven’t ridden it before, I can visualize me riding it around and prepare without actually doing anything. I have a little checklist I run through when I do get on—what it does well and what it doesn’t.”
After celebrating a national title in Waco with new AU athletic director Allen Greene and restarting the party later at Toomer’s Corner, Williams and his team did a very Nick Saban-like thing—they got back to business.
“I don’t think they’ll think about last year much,” Williams says. “I was over that before we got the trophy handed to us. They’ll follow suit pretty quick because it’s always about what’s next.”
What’s next includes ongoing facilities upgrades and a championship ring presentation during halftime of the Sept. 14 football game against LSU. The following Friday, the fall half of equestrian season begins at Tennessee-Martin.
Even if winning is business as usual for Auburn’s equestrian team, these young women will eventually reflect back fondly on championship teams that are just as compelling as that one story about the local kid who turned the “Cow College” into a “Horse University.”
“The one thing they don’t realize and where it’s easy for them to go ‘What’s next?’ is this is just their group of buddies,” Williams says. “Sometimes they have no idea what they’ve just achieved. Very few people get to make a Division I team. Very few people make an SEC team. Very few people get a ring put on their finger because of those accomplishments. One day they’re going to look back and go, ‘Holy smokes! We were part of something big.’” H&A
All photos courtesy Auburn Athletics.