100 Years of Equestrian Excellence: Forward thinking, forward riding

Fox hunting on campus, 2019
Fox hunting on campus, 2019
The Early Years

Sweet Briar board member John McBryde had big plans the College. He worked with Ralph Adams Cram to develop the vision and construct the reality of the Sweet Briar campus. His vision, however, extended beyond academic buildings and dormitories. He saw potential in the beautiful land. He planned to build a barn for milk cows and pleasure horses for the use of the students. He dammed the little stream where Daisy used to fish, forming the lake to use for boating. He built a boat house. The woods nearest the buildings were to be cleared and converted into a park.

From the very beginning, land and horses occupied leading roles at the College and were a source of pride and distinction.

Riding Council, 1956
Riding Council, 1956

Sweet Briar welcomed the first class in the fall of 1906, and in 1909 Eugenie Morenus from Vassar arrived to teach mathematics and Latin, but horseback riding was her chief joy. She had her own horse, October—known as Toby—who would become one of the best-known figures on campus. During spring vacation, Miss Morenus would often take girls for 10-day rides to the Peaks of Otter, Apple Orchard Mountain, Natural Bridge and to Bellevue near Bedford. In 1911 Mr. Martindale, the farm manager, took her and three others on a four-day trip with him to collect the rent from outlying farms.

Mr. Martindale had arrived a few months before Miss Morenus, and one of his first jobs was to supervise the reconstruction of the dairy and horse barns, which had burned in the spring of 1907. He was an enthusiastic arranger of drag hunts and fox hunts, and even those who never rode were thrilled by the excitement on Thanksgiving morning when, in the frosty air, the traditional hunt assembled on campus.

Even though there was a small dairy and horse barn at Sweet Briar Farm, students who wanted to ride had to rent horses from the livery stable in Amherst. They enjoyed pleasure rides, picnics and fox hunting. The concept of competitive riding was still more than a decade away.

An Athletic Association was created in 1907 with the purpose of promoting athletic sports. By 1910, students were riding and boating, as well as playing tennis and basketball. By 1917, field hockey, basketball, tennis, riding and lacrosse were all firmly established as inter-class competitions. In 1918, the Athletic Association adopted a new constitution that contained specifications for a point system enabling more students to be recognized for their athletic performance. Riding was introduced as an organized sport in 1920, but in these early years, it mainly was a recreational activity and a way to earn points towards the physical education requirement.

But change was on the horizon.

Harriet Howell Rogers Arrives

A few years after riding became an organized sport, Sweet Briar welcomed one of the most influential people in the development of the riding program: Harriet Howell Rogers, who served as a professor of physical education and the director of riding from 1924 to 1963.

Harriet recognized how popular riding was with the students and how influential it could be for both academic and personal development. In 1925, Harriet persuaded Sweet Briar leadership to establish a riding stables in the old dairy barn on the northeast side of campus, just off the road that served as the main entrance to the College. It was an impressive facility for its time with a stable, a barn and an outdoor ring.

Harriet organized the first May Day Horse Show in 1927, which later became the Annual Sweet Briar Horse Show. Fox hunting remained one of the most popular activities on campus, and a Sweet Briar Hunt Team was formed around 1929. Riding for pleasure and friendly inter-class sport grew with each passing year.

As the 1920s ended, another pivotal figure entered the picture: Captain Vladimir Littauer. Vladimir first visited the College in 1930, and for the next 30 years, he was a regular instructor, teaching both riding clinics and educational sessions. Vladimir’s method, the Forward Riding System, became the foundation of the riding program that we know today. Vladimir, Harriet and a third important figure, Clayton Bailey, Jr.—who everyone called June, short for junior—recognized the importance of the Forward Riding System and the growing interest among the students.

As the College’s instructors applied the new theory and practice of forward riding, the program began to gain a reputation for producing top riders. In a world where older riding traditions were lingering, Sweet Briar became a leader in the evolution of hunter/jumper riding.

Establishing a Top Riding Program
Paul Cronin on Never Explain, 1970
Paul Cronin on Never Explain, 1970

Harriet retired in 1963 and one of the instructors, Pat Horst Moon, took over as director until Clayton returned to campus and became the director in 1964. But the stables and facilities were too small and showing their age. The maintenance and operational expenses were great, and there were talks of closing the program due to lack of funding.

But President Anne Pannell saw the value of not only continuing the riding program, but of funding its development and building a state-of-the-art facility. In 1967, Anne hired Paul Cronin as the director of riding. When he arrived, the program had dwindled, and the original facilities were far from being in good condition. But plans for a new riding center were taking shape.

Over the next several years, Paul planned the new facility and Anne sought out donors and funding. Their efforts and the generosity of one anonymous donor in particular led to the construction of the new riding center, named for Harriet Howell Rogers, which opened in 1971.

The new facility was impressive. Its 120’ x 300’ indoor ring was the largest in the nation. Forty-nine stalls in two stable wings flanked a courtyard with a large classroom and lounge area in the center, overlooking the indoor area. Beyond the main barn complex was an enormous outdoor riding ring, two large jumping fields, two small barns and numerous paddocks and turn-out fields. Add in the 3,250 acres of ridable land, and the expansive facility was unique.

“Even with the new center, we continued to use the entire campus and began developing more trails,” says Paul. “Students not only enjoyed the large riding arenas, but regularly ventured out on the trails and trained in the proving grounds and fields behind the lakes and green barn. Fox hunting, hunter trials and hacking out continued to be an important part of the riding program.”

It didn’t take long for interest in competitive riding to flourish, especially through the Affiliated National Riding Commission (ANRC), Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) and local hunter/jumper show circuit.

Captain Vladimir Littauer riding during a clinic, 1935
Captain Vladimir Littauer riding during a clinic, 1935

The ANRC, which is based on Vladimir’s Forward Riding System, organized competitions and rating centers that tested riders in three phases of riding and a rigorous written exam. Sweet Briar had close, foundational ties to the ANRC, hosting many events and winning many championships. The IHSA was also expanding and becoming very popular, and Paul was instrumental in organizing the regional division to which the College belongs.

This new beginning with one of the best facilities in the nation and a reputation for equestrian excellence and achievement, set the stage for the next 50 years of remarkable competitive and educational accomplishments.

As the program developed, there was a natural ebb and flow of interests and experiences of student riders—whether they were recreational riders, competitors or looking to pursue a career in the equine industry. In the 1990s, Paul began to notice another change. In the early years, students arrived with a background of riding on the land and were taught how to ride in the ring. Now, most students arrived with show experience and were taught to ride in the field. While still an important part of the riding program’s curriculum, field riding, hunter trials and fox hunting were giving way to show hunters, jumpers and eventing.

“Above all, no matter what type of riding the students were interested in, we wanted them to understand forward riding and that it was a complete system,” says Paul. “It’s a progression of position and controls through the levels for both horse and rider. We always emphasized the consideration of the horse. That was our main focus.”

As the 21st century dawned, Paul implemented a number of facility improvements and worked on a series of programmatic initiatives aimed at ensuring the quality of the riding program. The initiatives were not new concepts to Sweet Briar riders, as they had been an informal part of the program for some time. The instructional side of the riding program offered three areas of concentration: teaching, schooling and management.

“We wanted to teach our students how to not only to be riders, but horsewomen,” says Paul. “Our program had a strong educational component that taught riding theory, horse care and farm management. We also began a teaching assistant program where students learned methods of instruction and taught beginner classes.”

The Riding Council, which originated in the 1920s, also played a large role in developing leaders and expert horsewomen. “They were so important to the success of the riding program,” says Paul. “They supported all aspects of it: riding, horse care, facility and show management and student support.”

“But everyone, not just the council, contributed to the program,” Paul pointed out. “They came from all over the country with different riding experiences, and you could learn a lot from them. One of the best things that helped me develop as an instructor was the anonymous evaluations. I learned how to adapt to various students’ needs and sought out more opportunities for interaction and the exchange of ideas.”

Having successfully developed hundreds of riders into well-rounded horsewomen and successful competitors and setting up the riding program for continued success in the next century, Paul retired in 2001, becoming a professor emeritus of the College.

Riding Into the 21st Century
Shelby French coaches a rider
Shelby French coaches a rider

Shelby French joined Sweet Briar as the associate director of the riding program in 2000 and took over as director upon Paul’s retirement in 2001. One thing about the College that stood out to Shelby was the administration’s high level of support for the riding program, particularly from President Betsy Muhlenfeld and Dean Jonathan Green. They, and many others, recognized how riding benefited students in their academics and other athletic pursuits.

“Riding students tend to have a strong work ethic, come prepared, are self-disciplined and balance multiple demands of their time,” says Shelby. “They develop valuable leadership and teamwork skills, respect for others, empathy and the ability to communicate in many ways. All of these are integral parts of the Sweet Briar woman.”

In 2003, the three programmatic initiatives started by Paul—teaching, schooling and management—were formalized into the College’s Equine Studies Certificate. The program offered riders the best of both worlds: a strong liberal-arts foundation combined with preparation for careers in the equine industry.

“Many of the students that participated in the certificate program often were focused on learning for their own personal benefit rather than to become an equine professional,” says Shelby. “They wanted to be contributing members of society in many other fields. They were focused on life after college in a broader sense and the certificate program helped them build lifelong skills that could be applied anywhere.”

As more students joined the riding program—typically 150 each semester—the riding center saw another burst of growth with the construction of the South Barn, Hunter Barn, storage areas and more fenced-in fields and paddocks, not to mention a new truck and trailer for competition travel.

Shelby led the riding program through a steady phase of competitive success and teaching beginner and intermediate riders. Loved by her students for her enthusiasm and playfulness, she left an indelible mark on the program.

“As an instructor, I learned that you can’t take yourself too seriously,” says Shelby, “You had to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. You have to let your mind get out of the way of what your body wants to do. I encouraged the students to work hard but have fun and not get hyper focused on the outcome.”

Mimi Wroten, director of riding
Mimi Wroten, director of riding

Merilee “Mimi” Wroten ’93 returned to Sweet Briar as an instructor in the fall of 1996. She coached the IHSA team and riders for local shows and field riding. In 1999 she became the associate director then assumed the director position when Shelby left in 2011 to lead the United States Hunter Jumper Association.

“The riding calendar is now more year-round than it used to be, with various opportunities to compete available nearly all the time,” says Mimi. “This change matched the students’ desire for more competition. The riding program became more structured to better support the multi-faceted and continuous calendar.”

Mimi has many great memories of being challenged and learning the theory and history behind riding, which expanded her thoughts on teaching. “Educating students on the Forward Riding System creates horsewomen who are considerate of a horse’s needs and address them through schooling,” she says. Learning to communicate with different horses is part of the training and also is a key component of IHSA and National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) competitions.

The Forward Riding System continues to be a proven method of improving a rider’s skill. “But one must have an open mind,” says Mimi. “With the prolific number of trainers, methods and competitive strategies, it can be daunting to adopt a new method of riding and schooling once arriving at Sweet Briar. But typically, once students understand how the system can help at any level, they become intrigued with it. Rather than only being concerned with advancing in competition, they begin to see how the system can support the development of themselves and their horses. By learning in-depth about the theory behind riding, schooling and communication with the horse, the rider solidifies her foundation in horsemanship and soon realizes that rather than slowing down her progress, it propels her to new heights.”

Britt Larson-Jackson '22
Britt Larson-Jackson ’22

Today, the College owns 50 horses and boards 20 student-owned horses. There are 85 Sweet Briar students in the riding program with the largest group being at the intermediate level, followed by the advanced riders then beginners. The IHSA team has an impressive 35 riders and the NCEA team has nine.

Here’s to the next 100 years. Ride on, Vixens!

Reprinted from the spring 2020 Sweet Briar Magazine.