Smith College equestrian team alumnae launches campaign to regain varsity status

By Jackson Cote

Caroline O'Connor/Collegian
Caroline O’Connor/Collegian

Responding to Smith College’s move to transition their equestrian team from varsity to club status and close their on-campus barn, current student-riders and Northampton community members have united in efforts to oppose the decision.

The administration announced its decision on Dec. 8, 2016, only two weeks before the end of the fall semester, and the College immediately received pushback, from current and former students.

“We’re all still grieving and feeling,” wrote equestrian team captain Kelsey Parks Smith, who posted on the team’s official Facebook page shortly after the administration made its decision public.

“We’re going to need all the hands, voices, and people we can get to prove that this isn’t a disposable program,” she added.

The most notable opposition came from Save Smith Equestrian, a committee composed of 15 alumnae and former equestrian team members, who formed the organization to fight to reverse the administration’s actions.

In a news release posted on Smith’s athletics web page, the College wrote, “The decision was strategic, not financial,” adding, “fundraising for the program, as some have proposed, will not change it.”

A spokesperson for Save Smith Equestrian, Jess Peláez, who graduated from Smith in 2005, noted that it “seems very counterintuitive,” for an all-women’s college like Smith to make cuts to the only sport that it offers where men and women can compete equally.

She also stated that much of the outrage surrounding the College’s actions stems from the fact that the decision was so “sudden, [and] secretive.”

The only two administrators who knew about the decision – which had been in the works for two years, without public knowledge – were Smith College Dean Donna Lisker and Director of Athletics Kristin Hughes, according to Peláez.

Peláez said that Smith’s board of trustees did not even know about the idea prior to the College announcing it, citing a call she made on Monday Jan. 23, 2017 with Lisker, Hughes and Chair of the Board of Trustees Deborah Duncan.

“This is not what we expected from our alma mater,” Peláez said. “We expect transparency, open dialogue, communal problem solving, and it’s just not there.”

Members of Save Smith Equestrian initially thought that Smith’s actions were a matter of finances. Many alumnae made efforts to fundraise. They also offered to buy the barn from the College and change over its operations, which the college refused, according to Peláez.

On Dec. 16, 2016, Lisker sent out a letter to members of Save Smith Equestrian explaining some of the factors that went into the decision-making, citing “the complexities of animal care,” as well as a “declining interest in riding,” and the issue of “managing liability.”

“We don’t think that stands up either,” Peláez said, in reference to Lisker’s claim that the liability of operating the barn was a factor in it being shut down.

Save Smith Equestrian is currently trying to amplify the outcry coming from alumnae, students and those in the Northhampton community who are affected by the decision, as the barn offers a community riding program, allowing middle school and high school students to ride on equestrian teams.

Along with creating a petition that has over 1,700 signatures, Save Smith Equestrian is holding an event to spread awareness of their cause, called Breech and Boots Day of Action, where individuals are urged to take photographs on their phones posing with a real, stuffed, or hand-drawn horse, and then spread it on social media with the hashtag “savesmithequestrian.”

The event coincides with the Smith College Board of Trustees meetings on Jan. 26 and 27. Organizers are hoping that supporters’ voices will get a platform there.

“That’s are goal now, to really engage all the voices,” said Peláez.

Jackson Cote can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote..