By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
COLLEGE STATION, Texas - Tana McKay is in her 14th season as the head equestrian coach at Texas A&M. She has taken the program from club-sport status to one of the top equestrian programs in the nation. The Aggies are the defending NCEA overall team national champions.
McKay sat down with the SEC Digital Network on Monday to discuss her team, the transition to the SEC and the evolution of the sport in this SEC “Five Questions.”
SEC Digital Network: With your season beginning in just a few weeks, what have you seen from your 2012-13 team?
Tana McKay: “It’s definitely going to be a different year for us, competing with all the SEC schools. The bulk of our competition will be with SEC schools, competing against them both home and away. That’s going to be the biggest difference from last year. We’ve got some young riders who are going to have to step up this year. It’s always an unknown when your piece of equipment – the horse – is constantly changing. We’re looking forward to our younger athletes doing as well as our upperclassmen who have been quite successful. There are no freebies in the SEC. We are going to have to step up from day one. We will have about three weeks of practice and then we will be competing against Georgia. That’s a tough one on us to start off the season.”
SEC Digital Network: You’re coming off an NCEA overall team national championship last season. Does that give you momentum heading into this year, or do you view each season differently?
Tana McKay: “I look at each year individually. Each year, you lose your seniors and this year there’s a new group of horses that we’re not really familiar with in the SEC. In the Big 12, we knew everyone’s horses and, knowing what to expect from horses is a huge help. There’s no good way to explain it, but it’s like if our golf team had to go play at LSU and LSU had clubs and each athlete just drew clubs. Then they had to acclimate themselves to the clubs they were given and go compete to the best of their abilities.”
SEC Digital Network: Your team has been very successful over the years, especially in the Western discipline, having won four consecutive Western national titles. What has been the key to your success in the Western events?
Tana McKay: “Texas A&M is a great school to recruit for and it’s in Texas, so that attracts a lot of Western-type riders. A lot of people might think that our Western roster would be stacked with riders from the state of Texas, but we have Western riders from all over the country. It’s a great academic school and if some of the students are thinking of going the animal-science route, we have a great animal science program. I think also we’ve had a staff that’s been here for the long haul. We’ve had only one turnover in coaches on our staff. We work really great as a staff and have a very consistent goal in mind of how we want our team to run and what type of athletes we want at Texas A&M. We’ve been together a long time and I think it’s helped the fluidity among the team. We’ve created an atmosphere that the upperclassmen are then passing on to the underclassmen.”
SEC Digital Network: What are your thoughts on entering the SEC at a time where your program will be a part of the first-ever SEC equestrian championship?
Tana McKay: “We’re thrilled to be a part of the first SEC Championship. We were a part of the first Big 12 Championship. To me, the SEC will be a mini-precursor to the national championship because all of our teams will be the ones in the running for the national championship. As with all the SEC sports, it will only make all of our athletes better and more prepared to win national championships. Right now, we’re in the beginning stages of the championship and working on rules, but having the support of the SEC has been great. My hope is that it will add validity to the sport and there will be more SEC schools wanting to get a piece of the pie and get involved in equestrian.”
SEC Digital Network: How have you seen the sport of equestrian grow and change over the years?
Tana McKay: “It was a club sport to start off with and a lot of it was run by the student-athletes. One of the biggest differences was that it was governed by the IHSA. It was a unique thing because you had different levels for all abilities, so you had people who were riding and competing who were beginners in the sport of equestrian all the way up to the very advanced ones. The dynamics have changed, especially in terms of participation. When I started, there were about 100 girls on the team and they were learning how to show horses. When the NCEA started and we were receiving scholarship money, the coaches got together and we decided that we needed to tweak some things to mirror more of what an NCAA athlete and an NCAA team should be. We started recruiting the top athletes. The other big difference from the IHSA was that there was a tournament-style format and there was a lot of luck involved with the horses provided by the host school. If you drew a nice horse, you could potentially do better. We wanted to take the luck out of it. You don’t have any control in a sport that is judged, but we wanted to make it a head-to-head format. The horse that you compete on is the same for the riders of the home and away team. If a horse is having any issues, both teams are dealing with those issues to make it more fair. The level of the athlete has increased 10-fold. It is a great avenue for an athlete to ride and compete for their University and also receive scholarship money to help with their college career.”