Sophomore Annabeth Payne competes in a UGA equestrian event against Texas A&M in October.
UGA fans have seen the first two acts of this play before: A star-studded Dawgs squad learned from a lone regular-season loss to Auburn, knocking off the familiar rival convincingly in a high-stakes conference championship showdown. Unfortunately, the last act is familiar, too. A playoff format didn't halt the inevitable all-SEC national title match, and ultimately, the riders of the East Alabama Plains amended for past mistakes, with second-seeded Auburn upending the Dawgs on Apr. 21 in Waco, TX.
This was the path recently ridden by UGA equestrian, a program that has a say in any given season's championship hunt. Sticking with the college football analogy, UGA equestrian boasts an Alabama-like dynasty. They've won six national titles since the National Collegiate Equestrian Association, or NCEA, started crowning an overall champion in 2002. UGA's championships include the only repeat (2003–2004) and three-peat (2008–2010) in history, plus the 2014 crown. Even when they don't win the tournament, they're in the discussion. This year marked the squad's 11th finals appearance in 12 seasons.
This success comes against the most consistently stacked SEC field in any sport. The other members of the four-team conference won every other national title, with Auburn (2006, 2011, 2013, 2016, 2018), South Carolina (2005, 2007, 2015) and Texas A&M (2002, 2012, 2017) winning it all multiple times. It's a college sports fan or sportswriter's dream or nightmare, depending on their feelings about Deep South dominance.
The lack of SEC teams participating in a sport doesn't equate to a lack of top-notch competition. With such a small field, Dawgs head coach Meghan Boenig and her three rival coaches get a crack at some of the nation's best high-school prospects. Just as those great Boston Celtics teams in the ’60s had possible stars on the bench because the NBA had only nine teams, all four conference rosters are stacked top to bottom.
"We only show 20 people at a time, but we could show any of them at any time, because we're Georgia, and we recruit the best," says outgoing senior All-American horsemanship competitor Bailey Anderson, who adds that the 40-plus teammates beyond the starting 20 consistently practice and improve, forcing her and the other starters to always stay on top of their games.
For Anderson, an award winner as a student and an athlete, joining a program that has been elite since Boenig founded it in 2001 suited her college needs. "Georgia has always consistently been on the top, and when I came for my official visit, I kind of had an 'aha' moment and felt at home," she says. "I'm from Texas and wanted to go out of state and get a different experience, so it checked that off my list. And I really like the coaches and people here."
Many of these student athletes, like Anderson's roommate, horsemanship teammate and fellow outgoing senior Sammie Johnson, spent their entire childhoods sharpening their skills. Johnson, a West Virginia native, first competed at age 5, building a solid-enough youth career to earn a college scholarship. As talents develop in either one of two hunt seat or Western (which includes horsemanship) events, teenagers begin competing on a regional and national level. In this setting, they become acquainted with future college teammates and opponents.
"We all grew up in different parts of the world, but we all grew up showing all around the world," Anderson says. "If you don't know them super personally, you at least know of them. It's nice, because college is scary, obviously. You're going away from home, and you get to walk on this team where you have some familiar faces and already some friends."
It's a small world for coaches, too, placing few degrees of separation between the four SEC programs. For example, Boenig's work as an assistant coach at Texas A&M earned her the coveted spot as UGA's inaugural head coach. Likewise, when Auburn head coach Greg Williams guided his school's equestrian club to varsity status, college football coaching legend and UGA alum Pat Dye was among his most vocal and influential supporters.
Anderson, Johnson and other seniors leave the program with three conference titles in four years. They also lost in the national championship finals three out of four years—once each to every conference rival. The latter just proves how they've kept the premier equestrian program in the nation in the conversation, giving underclassmen a shot to, as they used to say in these parts, finish the drill.
"Obviously, we've had so much success this season that there will be no complaints from us as a group," Johnson said shortly after the SEC tournament. "We're going to go in and give it our all and do everything we can do to win that championship. But, you know, with sports, sometimes it's just not your day. We're pushing for each day at nationals to be our day."
The team indeed pushed for excellence each day of last month’s event, topping South Carolina and Texas A&M in the first two rounds to return to the finals. Even in a 10-5 loss to Auburn, UGA kept fighting after falling behind early 6-1.
In addition to Auburn's overall national title, six other event-based championships were awarded that weekend. UGA won the equitation on the flat final in a raw-score tiebreaker over Auburn. This event came after the overall finals, allowing the team to bounce back instantly and prove it can edge out its rivals on their best day.
Now that you know the full story, those football analogies should sting less. While Kirby Smart's team and staff hope to prove they can return to their sport's biggest stage, the equestrian world already knows that Boenig's 2018-’19 squad, by all means, should remain the NCEA's gatekeepers. After all, she's practically the equestrian Bear Bryant or Nick Saban, sustaining something great that no one should dismiss as, um, a dawg and pony show.