LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — A new riding season at Sweet Briar College comes with a step up in competition.

Sweet Briar announced in late August that the college had joined the National Collegiate Equestrian Association. SBC becomes the first Division III team to enter the NCEA ranks, a governing body of equestrian sports, which has been identified as an emerging sport by the NCAA. In the future, Sweet Briar riders will compete against programs such as the University of Georgia and Auburn University.

"We're excited to be the first Division III (school) stepping into that," said Mimi Wroten, director of Sweet Briar's riding program, a SBC graduate of 1993, and a former professional rider.

Of the other 22 NCEA member schools, 16 are Division I schools and six are Division II. Perennial NCEA powerhouses are Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M University, and the University of South Carolina. Those four schools have claimed all NCEA national titles since its formation in 2002.

For Sweet Briar riders, the opportunity to move up comes with a chance to showcase their skills.

"I think it's going to prove that even though we're a smaller school, we still have good riders and we can go out there and compete at that level with the bigger schools, and do just as well," said Courtney Barry, a senior Sweet Briar rider from Aspers, Pennsylvania.

"I think NCEA is a good move for us because we're going against more competitive schools," added Sarah Miller, a sophomore rider from Culpepper.

Emily Schlosberg, a junior rider from Fairfax Station, said she believed joining the NCEA was a good step for recruiting and scholarships, and that the league is emerging in the equestrian world.

Though Sweet Briar will continue to participate in Intercollegiate Horse Show Association competitions, which is for riders of all skill levels, top SBC riders will focus on NCEA events.

IHSA has more than 400 schools and thousands of riders in its ranks across all skill levels, whereas NCEA aims to be the "premier level of competition" for equestrians, according to its website.

The move into the NCEA also comes with a change in the format of riding competitions.

IHSA riders compete against numerous teams at each show. By contrast, in NCEA competition, schools compete directly against one another head-to-head, with the exception of tournaments. In IHSA competition the number of riders is set by the host school, but in NCEA five riders from each institution compete head-to-head. For championships, an IHSA team must be regional champions before advancing to the finals. In the NCEA, the top twelve overall teams are invited to compete.

Riders compete against one another on the same randomly drawn horse, a format Sweet Briar riders said they preferred because it comes down to who can get the best performance out of the animal.

"The format for (IHSA) is very different. You're judged against a multitude of other people on different horses. There are a lot of horses that vary in caliber, and what they're capable of, so that's not necessarily the fairest way," said Makayla Benjamin a senior rider from Leesburg.

While Sweet Briar students are excited about the move up to a higher level of competition, riders aren't discounting the growth from their IHSA experiences, which SBC also will remain a member of.

"You can come in as a lower level competitor with minimal years of experience, and you can grow and become a more advanced competitor by the time you graduate," Miller said.

Equestrian sports are a longstanding tradition at Sweet Briar, dating back more than 90 years.

For many riders, the program served as a recruiting tool. For Katie Balding, a freshman rider from Williamsburg, the riding program was a major factor in her decision to attend Sweet Briar.

"My goal as a rider is to become a professional, so the riding was a big part for me," Balding said.

Equestrian sports are recognized as an "emerging sport" by the NCAA, which means that it shows promise to be promoted to full championship status. To reach that status, the NCEA needs to have a minimum of 40 NCAA schools participating in its equestrian competitions.

Sweet Briar traveled out of state for its first NCEA competition on Friday, falling 4-3 to Delaware State University. SBC riders will compete next in NCEA action at the University of Georgia on Feb. 3, and at the University of Tennessee-Martin on March 15. Though upcoming NCEA competitions are all on the road, Wroten said Sweet Briar will host future events on its campus in Amherst County.

A number of IHSA events also are scheduled for this fall.

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Information from: The News & Advance, http://www.newsadvance.com/