Mary Bunker Ryther '85 - Team Captain

Smith College Equestrian Team 1985

Smith College Equestrian Team 1985

I’m deeply disappointed with the college’s recent decision to demote the SC Equestrian Team to a club sport and close the horse barn and riding facility. For all the Smithies past, present, and future who grew up living and breathing horses like I did; this is truly devastating news!

Had there been no on-campus horse barn and riding facility when I visited campus in 1980, I would never have applied to Smith. While in hindsight I can list plenty more practical reasons for selecting a college, my 17-year-old self was single-minded. I was a reluctant scholar, painfully shy, and lacking academic self-confidence. An avid rider since age 4, riding and enjoying the company of horses nearby was a necessity for me at college.

At Smith I found a warm and welcoming barn full of horses, each one ready to teach me an important life lesson. Bongo was a spotted Appaloosa gelding known for his quirky character. He didn’t look much like a hunt seat show horse either, and I had my doubts. During a jumping lesson early in my first year, Bongo tested me by stopping at a fence and quickly dumping me on the ground. No doubt he sensed I was skeptical of his abilities, and he knew how to deal with me. Just like the cliché goes, I climbed back in the saddle and figured out how to work with Bongo. We formed a respectful relationship that day, and we were buddies for 4 years. Equestrian sports require a close partnership between horse and rider, similar to other team sports, except that the “team” in this case communicates non-verbally and often may not have ridden together before. That’s quite a challenge.

I made close human friendships too!
Soon my new friends and I developed the familial bonds that teammates share. I was thrilled to discover that the unique IHSA competition format suited my advanced riding skills, and pleased to find that teammates who were beginner and intermediate riders also competed at their own skill levels to earn points for the team. The cooperation of seasoned, life-long riders with less-experienced equestrians created a diverse team from all backgrounds- all contributing to team goals. Far from being an elitist sport, the IHSA horse show provides a “level playing field” on which riders’ skills are tested riding unfamiliar horses (without practicing) provided by the host college. Maybe best of all, men and women compete equally in the IHSA, as they do in mainstream horse shows from youth “short-stirrup” to Olympic level competition. 

I proudly rode for Smith at IHSA shows for four years (1981-85) and was elected team captain in my sophomore and senior years. It was my greatest privilege to ride at Nationals three times; in 1983 at Southern Seminary in Buena Vista, VA, 1984 in Harrisburg, PA, and 1985 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY. Our May 1985 Nationals trip was extra special as Smith was Regional High Point College which qualified us to compete as a Team at Nationals in addition to our individual event qualifiers. Traveling to Kentucky to represent Smith at the highest collegiate level was the experience of a lifetime! It’s testament to the superb coaching of Sue Gray Payne and the strong support of the college that our team could successfully compete regionally and nationally. 

Horses helped me make my way at Smith, though my academic experiences ultimately became more relevant to my future. Even though I haven’t ridden for many years, my respect for Smith’s high standards and leadership has remained strong for decades. I’m proud of my “Smith Star” status for regular annual giving, yet I find my commitment to the college wavering due to this decision. My confidence that the administration has the best interests of all students in mind has vanished. I don’t want to imagine life without Smith (à la It’s A Wonderful Life) because so many of my best friends and most memorable accomplishments and adventures were made there.

- Mary Bunker Ryther, Smith College Class of 1985