By Lauren R. Giannini
Dedicated faculty, a state-of-the-art equestrian facility and team spirit are three of the factors making Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) the win-win choice for students in search of accredited university degrees and equestrian involvement. SCAD’s wildly successful intercollegiate team has flourished under the leadership of Ashley (Kelly) Henry, now in her 12th year as head coach.
Eligible for four championships each season in the American National Riding Commission, Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association and the Tournament of Champions, the SCAD Bees won seven out of the eight in 2015 and 2016. They made history in 2015 as the first team ever to win the National and Novice ANRC titles in the same year.
“Everybody asks, ‘What’s the secret?’ Success at the intercollegiate level takes good horses and great coaches, and Savannah College of Art and Design has Ashley,” said Eddie Federwisch, SCAD Equestrian Program Director, whose credentials include U.S. Equestrian Federation “r” Hunter Judge and current IHSA Director at Large. “The students on her team are completely 100 percent prepared. Watching how hard Ashley works makes me feel good about the future of the sport.”
Elements Of Success
Thanks to her grandmother, a horseperson from California, Ashley grew up riding in the Bahamas. Her family hosted clinics taught by professionals, including Judy Richter and Scott Evans. In the winter, they traveled to Florida to compete in Wellington. Ashley went to Garrison Forest, the all-girls boarding school in Maryland, because they had a riding program. Of course, she wanted to keep riding in college.
“Art school with the equestrian team was my dream come true — decision done,” said Ashley. She rode on the Bees all four years, contributing to two ANRC championships, in 2003 and in 2005, the year she graduated. That summer, she found herself facing a tough decision, career-wise. Fortunately for all concerned, she chose the horses.
“SCAD called and asked ‘What are you doing for the rest of your life?’ and ‘How do you feel about being the coach for the team?’ It was a huge surprise and definitely something I had to think about,” Ashley said. “I could go with jewelry which is why I came to SCAD, but it was a difficult decision. My heart was still really strong with the horses, and I knew I could still do the jewelry on the side. I started working for SCAD that summer.”
With SCAD’s support and Ashley’s commitment, the riding team grew exponentially into a major varsity sport in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, competing in ANRC and IHSA. SCAD itself has grown, and the university offers 40 majors and minors in 60 disciplines, conferring bachelor’s and master’s degrees. About 12,500 students study at SCAD’s four locations: Savannah, Atlanta, Hong Kong and France.
SCAD is the only art and design school to offer an equestrian team, and only Savannah offers the riding program. Riders on the team are treated like athletes in any varsity sport. They work with a personal trainer, do yoga and posture training so they’re aware of everything they need to perform well in equitation. If a rider can’t work out or has an injury, SCAD’s physical training staff will make sure the students are taken care of properly, just like any soccer or lacrosse player.
The Bees recorded Ashley’s first win as coach at the end of her first year, the 2006 National ANRC Championship. They harvested ANRC titles through May 2016, but not in 2007 and 2010. In IHSA’s prestigious USEF/Cacchione Cup for Individual Hunter Seat Rider, Ashley coached Kels Bonham to the championship in 2012 and to reserve honors in 2010.
Ashley does everything possible to teach, motivate and prepare her riders. It doesn’t matter if they’re showing walk-trot or jumping three-foot fences — each one is essential to the team’s success. Tryouts in early September bring in new team members, but there’s not much time to get ready for the pre-season Tournament of Champions Show on September 17 in Maryland.
Ashley’s team spirit is extremely visible at shows. “I wear a lot of gold and black, and I have about 30 pairs of socks that have bees, honeycombs or some sort of bee scene on them for our mascot,” she said. “When I plan my outfit for a competition, it’s SCAD’s colors through and through. Last year, I wore my bee scarf to every show and a different pair of bee earrings. At Nationals, I had a different pair of earrings every day, and the big pair I wore for the final was a gift from graduating alumni. My lucky bees.”
Ashley’s approach includes talking to her riders about equestrian as a sport and pulling together as a team. Her jewelry and items of clothing are visual aids intended to make her riders feel a bit stronger and more passionate about being a Bee. “I think my attire really helps team spirit,” she said. “You have to do whatever you can to keep that spirit going.”
Senior Meredith Denny, graphic design major and co-captain of the equestrian team, would agree. She contributed to the Bees’ Novice Team Championship, last April at the ANRC National Finals. She arrived at SCAD with very little equitation, having ridden mostly hunter-jumpers growing up in Tennessee. She learned how to equitate, as well as the dynamics of determination, dedication, hard work and goal-setting in a team environment led by Coach Ashley.
“I definitely exceeded my expectations for riding on a college team,” Meredith said. “Ashley is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met in my entire life. She puts so much time and effort into what we’re doing. It inspired me seeing how much she cares about the team and each individual person. She’s been there for me in so many ways. She’s an amazing person to have in my life, whether she’s a coach or a friend. She’s able to push everyone in the right way and motivate us when we need it. She’s just an awesome coach. She made me realize that if I work really hard, I can do a lot of great things.”
Ashley’s coaching and motivational talks, her fashion ensembles and sense of humor resonate with her rider-athletes. They also have the most inspirational and spirit-lifting setting in which to improve their equestrian skills.
The Ronald C. Waranch Equestrian Center began construction in 2007 and the new barn was completed in fall 2015. Located about seven miles north of Savannah in Hardeeville, South Carolina, the facility includes state-of-the-art everything — covered arena, two barns with 84 stalls, three outdoor rings with adjacent schooling areas, derby field, spacious pastures and turn-out paddocks. Amenities include stalls with rubber tiles, fans and an automatic fly spray system, on-site resident staff 24-7, security cameras, staff veterinarian and the most advanced technologies for equine care, including IRAP, shock wave therapy and vibration plate.
“Seeing all this develop and watching this equestrian facility blossom has been absolutely phenomenal,” said Ashley. “When I started coaching, I had 20 students on the team. Now I have 65 with half of them majoring in equestrian studies, but we’re always looking for more riders. A great draw for us is that it’s a co-ed team. Right now, we have 65 SCAD-owned horses, all donated, and not ridden more than once a day. They’re the nicest school horses you could ask for and great teachers. I think that all of us, students and faculty, are living our childhood dreams in horse heaven.”
SCAD will host the ANRC National Championships April 19¬–23 at their Waranch Equestrian Center.
Photos courtesy of Savannah College of Art and Design