Spotlight: Ontario Collegiate Equestrian Association (OCEA)

OCEA Logo.


As my first child went off to university this fall, I became more aware of athletic opportunities at universities with, of course, a particular interest in equestrian clubs / teams.

When I went to university I was:

a) Lucky that there actually was an equestrian club at my university. A group of us used to meet up at the Phys Ed centre and catch a taxi out to a local stable where we had free run of the place once a week. It was completely informal, and there were no competitions, but it was great to keep riding, and great to get out of the somewhat artificial surroundings of the campus.

b) Unlucky that there was no varsity equestrian team I could compete on, with no chance of traveling to shows and meeting other riders from other schools.

That has very much changed these days, with the presence of the Ontario Collegiate Equestrian Association. Established in 20007, the OCEA is made up of over 20 schools, competing in four zones across Ontario, giving university and college students the chance to represent their school in equestrian sports, without impacting their studies.

I only wish the OCEA had existed when I went to university, but since it didn’t, I decided I could at least find out more about it, and share the information with you.

To do this I interviewed Emma Hamilton, a VP of the OCEA and the Co-Captain of the McMaster University Equestrian team. Emma is in her fourth year of Integrated Business and Humanities, and her fourth year with the McMaster Equestrian Club and the OCEA.

(as an interesting side note, Emma was also a winner in a Trillium Hunter Jumper Association short story contest I judged many years ago! So Emma is also a talented writer)

Tudor: I’m really interested in the OCEA because I think that a lot of people – even horse people –probably don’t know much about it and don’t know how it works. First of all, could you tell me how you got involved.

Emma: I had actually become aware of the OCEA when I was in grade 12 by looking at online sports and recreation groups. And it was definitely one of the factors I considered when I was looking at universities.

Of course, nowadays almost every major university and college in Ontario is represented. The OCEA consists of 21 teams and all of their sister schools as well.

In addition to having an OCEA team, most of the schools also have a broader equestrian or equitation type club, which is great because it includes people of all different levels and skill sets. And it builds this huge community of people that you wouldn’t normally meet, whether they’re from different programs, or different years.

Tudor: It occurs to me that the partnerships must be really important between the schools and the stables. Maybe you could talk to me about that.

Emma: In McMaster’s case, our affiliated barn is actually about 20 minutes away and we run a regular general lesson program out of there for all of our club members. So, there will be people there getting on horses for the first time ever, people who have done the 1.4 metres, juniors just staying tuned up, and more. And the coaches at Vector (Vector Equestrian – home of the McMaster team) are wonderful.

Across the board our schools try to have one main home barn to allow students to still partake in lessons – still be able to get some saddle time – while they’re at school which is great, of course, for their mental health and wellbeing. And then of course on the competitive side, it keeps everybody tuned up for horse show season.

Tudor: It seems like it must be a win-win. Obviously, it’s good for the schools and it’s probably good for those stables to have the teams coming in using their facilities.

Emma: In a lot of cases, probably 60 per cent of the barns that we use for our lesson programs are also venues for our shows. So, they’re large enough to accommodate those types of events, which is super.

Tudor: You touched on it a bit, but how do you think having this opportunity changes the university or college experience for students?

Emma: It makes riding possible. For myself, coming from Innisfil (approximately one-and-a-half-hour drive), for me to go back and forth to my home barn and try to fit some lessons in and be able to go riding and have the outlet I know I need to relax is just not possible. So, first of all, having the lesson programs nearby is a great opportunity and allows everyone to still have that type of accommodation.

My co-captain is the same year as me. However, she’s a nursing student. We would have never met each other in school at McMaster. It allows those types of connections to be made. And frankly they’re long-lasting and stretch well beyond class time. With the pandemic and all the difficulties, and everybody moving back home, it’s wild to think of how much we’ve actually stayed connected despite all the circumstances.

And then of course, the fact that the OCEA fosters a team spirit, that there’s really no other comparable thing until you get to Nation’s Cups classes in the Grand Prix. It allows you to connect with between 15 and 30 other people, depending on the school. You go to horse shows every other Sunday, you go to the same lessons, you go to the same events and often you socialize outside of that.

Tudor: I think people might be interested to know, as you said, this really makes riding more of a team sport. For someone who’s just coming out of doing the hunter-jumper circuit or being an eventer, what would they find different? What would be an eye-opener for them?

Emma: One of the eye-openers for a lot of our rookies is they don’t realize how much of a catch-ride opportunity it is. Your horse is drawn for you based on conditions including height and weight restrictions. You get on the horse after it’s been warmed up by an outside party; often we have junior riders or amateurs that come in that aren’t competing and warm up the horses. You get on, and you go to the gate, and you enter the ring, and you go jump your course. A lot of people don’t realize how bold you have to be to compete in something that way. It’s definitely an eye opener, the first show; probably 95 per cent of people are visibly nervous before going into their first round.

Then, as they come out, they realize all the years of riding lessons, all the years of horse showing, paid off, because everything went really well. Being able to have that level of confidence coming out of the ring is super. And then definitely the fact that it’s a team sport – often (in other shows) you go into the ring, and you personally think of the ribbons that you’re going to get, what you have to improve on, and how things have to work. But because of the catch-riding nature of OCEA shows, and how little time you have to get acquainted with your horse, nobody expects you to go in and lay down the Maclay winning round. They know you’re going to go in and there are going to be struggles. There are going to be difficulties. And it really shows your level of adaptability, and how clear-headed you can stay in the face of adversity, which is great.


Tudor: I think the catch-riding is really fascinating and I think a lot of people might not even know or understand much it. Could you tell me more specifically about that?

Emma: The idea behind catch-riding is it eliminates the reliance on having a really good horse, which comes up frequently, of course, in the hunter ring and even sometimes in the jumper ring; it creates a level playing field. For each division of 21 riders, there are between six and eight horses, so each horse goes in and does three trips with three different riders. That way you’re able to create a fairly level playing field between those riders, and you’re able to judge the rider truly on their equitation, truly on their abilities, which is something that’s not offered really anywhere else.

It comes back to the idea behind the intercollegiate horse show association in the States, and of course the old equitation trick of trying to switch horses during a medal ride off. I’ve been really fortunate throughout my riding career to have many different horses to ride and be able to do some catch-riding opportunities at shows, but a lot of people don’t, and there’s a lot of people that have the same children’s hunter from 16 upwards, and they do the amateurs with it, and they can get stuck in a bubble. Catch-riding definitely reveals all the additional things that you can learn from additional horses.

Tudor: I agree with you. I ride different horses all the time and it even goes down to the tack; you can never blame a bad saddle for a bad ride because you have to be adaptable.

Emma: Right. And it’s funny because so many people get caught up about riding the same horse and you always have to think back to the six-year-old version of yourself that went to lessons every week and rode something new every week. It was always seen as this challenge, but you were always enthusiastic about it and definitely at the OCEA, you see that same level of enthusiasm throughout the circuit.

… so many people get caught up about riding the same horse and you always have to think back to the six-year-old version of yourself that went to lessons every week and rode something new every week. It was always seen as this challenge, but you were always enthusiastic about it.

Tudor: So, is OCEA a stepping stone to going on and showing, or how does it fit into overall rider development?

Emma: There are four divisions, entry, novice, intermediate, and open. Entry is geared toward people that have been confidently jumping around two-foot courses for the past six months or so. So a lot of those people haven’t really shown outside of the OCEA and this might even become their first showing experience. In the case of McMaster, I know that for three of our six entry riders, this was the first time they’d ever shown and for two others, it was the first time they’d ever show in an equitation event. They’d gone eventing or done the low-level jumpers, but never had to do something where it was looking at them. We see the entry riders competing in two-foot, low-level classes. The novice riders have often competed in the two -foot-three to two-foot-six classes. And then the intermediate riders are people who’ve mainly done the two-foot-nine and three-foot classes. But then comparatively, the open division looks at people that have experience at three-foot-three or three-six, and higher, and as high as people doing Young Riders and junior jumpers competing.

So, there’s a huge range of people based on their show experience, but the OCEA divisions do a great job of separating that, which is nice. Once the OCEA season ends, probably 75 per cent of people return to showing in the regular season, their circuits, and those range from platinum and gold levels down to local schooling shows or off-property experiences. But then in several cases, the OCEA is perhaps the only time these riders actually have time to go horse shows and perhaps they have a summer job or perhaps it’s the finances that prohibit them from embarking in a full-on show season. And the OCEA allows them to still experience that while at school.

Tudor: And how is the OCEA run? What’s the structure?

Emma: It’s really student run. There are five of us on the board of directors. We’re all students, two are actually in their master’s program. The remainder of us are in our last years of our undergraduate programs. We have zone executives set up similar to the Trillium circuit, with four zones. Each of those include undergraduate students – usually second- to fifth-year students. And the idea of the OCEA is to be entirely student-run for students. We always have schedules and finances in mind. We make sure that people aren’t expected to go to horse shows during their midterms or their finals and we make sure that shows are spread out enough. That’s been one of the driving forces behind every decision and especially decisions that we’ve had to make during COVID-19.

The idea of the OCEA is to be entirely student-run for students. We always have schedules and finances in mind. We make sure that people aren’t expected to go to horse shows during their midterms or their finals and we make sure that shows are spread out enough.

Tudor: I was going to ask you about that. I know at the moment there are not shows happening. How has COVID affected you and, and what are you looking forward to?

Emma: Definitely COVID affected us. As early as March we saw our schools shutting down and that plays a huge impact on our student clubs, on sports teams and everything; a lot of clubs lost the support they required to be able to send riders to our shows. Throughout the summer, we were able to work out different programs that schools were comfortable with, that they were willing to support and that ensured we were always following the guidelines and protocols put forth by provincial governments. So right now we have our virtual show series, and we have our autumn throwback classic, which involves looking at videos from previous shows over the past four years.
The most exciting program we’re looking at is OCEA masterclass, which will include sports psychologists, equine professionals, equine health professionals, as well as local trainers and coaches putting together an informative series of videos that will be available both through our Instagram page in small, roughly two-minute video clips. We’re also looking at longer, two-hour seminars for our membership including question and answer periods. And then definitely one of the things we’re looking forward to over the next couple of months, hopefully is being able to offer small in-team clinics where we can accommodate smaller gathering sizes and be able to respect barn owners’ restrictions that they might have in place.

Tudor: The final question I have is, what would you say to someone who’s thinking about this? Who’s just heard about it, whether they be experienced or not, what would you say?

Emma: I would say definitely reach out to your club representative. All our teams have an Instagram page and a Facebook page, and they are all more than willing to bring on new members. Everybody is as enthusiastic and excited about new members as they are about old ones. So reach out to your team, and learn more about what they offer – because each team may offer something different; they might offer different programs as well as different opportunities.

And honestly, just jump in. I have absolutely no regrets about the OCEA. In your first year you may think, “I’m not sure if I’m going to have time for horse shows. I’m not sure if I’m going to have time for riding lessons,” but just being able to have a group of people you can always rely on, that you can always discuss something with, being able to have those connections while at school is just unmatched.

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