By Carter Anderson
Coach Jennifer Ridgely has been a vital part of the Delaware State University (DSU) equestrian team and is going into her 15th season as head coach of the Hornets. Not only does she train young women to success in the ring, but she also stresses the importance of growing her student-athletes into successful young women who are advocates for change in their communities. The DSU equestrian team boasts the greatest number of community service hours in the athletics department every semester and carries a consistently high team GPA. One of Jennifer’s main goals, as the only head equestrian coach at a historically Black college or university (HBCU), is to spread awareness throughout the NCEA of ways our sport can become more inclusive and how teams can foster an environment that encourages productive conversations by leading by example at Delaware State.
What’s your favorite memory as head coach of Delaware State?
My favorite memory is winning our first-ever conference championship. At that time, we were a part of the UEC, or United Equestrian Conference. It came down to the last ride. It was an absolute nail-biter! The last point was up to one of our freshman competitors. It was one of those moments you will never forget. The whole team jumped up to celebrate, and it was incredibly cool.
What has been your biggest challenge that you’ve faced as a head coach?
My biggest challenge was starting a program from nothing. I was actually on the board, a group of equine enthusiasts and equestrians in the area that the university had put together as a hiring committee. I didn’t apply for the position. I was instead on the committee to hire the coach. Unfortunately, the young lady that we hired only lasted four months, and then they reached out to me to see if I was interested. I originally said no, but I’m very glad that I changed my mind. It has been the best decision that I’ve ever made. So, the team was created in the fall of 2006 and I started in February of 2007. I had five girls on the team, five horses, and we worked out of my house where I had an indoor arena and a barn. We grew exponentially. Here we are with 45 girls on the team, 40 horses and two barns. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come.
What do you hope that equestrian athletes take away from their time at DSU?
I hope when they leave here they’ve learned to embrace diversity and challenges in a positive way. Because we’re the only HBCU that has an equestrian team, we offer a really unique opportunity to young women to grow in so many different ways. I think the experience that our student athletes have is unique and will better prepare them for the real world and for the diverse workforce. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a mom and I do this with my own kids, but I’m big on pushing these young girls to become strong young women. For example, if they have a problem, they will come to my office and say they want to speak with me. I want them to become articulate, mature and professional in expressing their wishes, desires and perspectives, without getting offended. That’s what is happening in the world right now! People aren’t accepting of different ideas and perspectives.
How has Delaware State, being a HBCU, responded to the Black Lives Matter movement?
We’ve done several things. First of all, one of them is not rioting. We’re not for that at all. There’s no change that’s going to happen from it. Peaceful protests are different, but there have been no peaceful protests on campus. What there has been is lots of opportunities for people to listen and communicate. Those are the two biggest terms that we’ve heard from everyone on campus.
One of the biggest things that the athletic department did was purchase a book called “The Black and the Blue” by Matthew Horace, one of our alumni. He’s a retired FBI agent, police chief and a Black man. We required the entire athletic department to read it, and then each team had a WebX meeting with the author. The equestrian team did it and we were on the phone with him for two hours! It was life-changing, and several of my girls reached out to say that they were bummed to have to get on this call until they did it. That’s the way change happens: by listening to other people’s perspectives and opening up the dialogue.
The week before that, I spoke to the head football coach, Rod Milstead, who is a former NFL player, an alumnus and a Black man, and asked him what I can do to help my girls understand and appreciate what it means to be at an HBCU. My team is predominantly white girls with two African American girls on my team, and I wanted him to talk to the team about where this pride comes from and how we can get on board with it. We had another two-hour talk with the football coach where my girls asked some incredibly hard questions. He listened to them and communicated in a way that the girls were able to receive the information.
Even though our campus is just a small blink of what is happening around the world, our bubble is a utopia of what diversity is supposed to be. I wish the world could see what the white and the Black people are doing at Del State, because we are the ones who are making the change.
What do you think are the most important steps going forward in making our sport more inclusive?
I posed that question to our head coaching committee. Everyone was very perceptive and thought it was important to talk about. I take it very seriously, and as a white woman, I need to stand up and say, “Hey, look at what’s happening.” My duty as a coach working at an HBCU is to have more Black girls riding on my team. I’m going to create a panel discussion, where I will offer a WebX and invite Black equestrian professionals to speak on this panel so that we can restart the conversation. The head coaches of the NCEA have asked us to video it so that they can share it with their teams.
DSU Eq carries the greatest number of community service hours in DSU Athletics every semester. Explain how your team gives back to the community.
I mandate that each student athlete complete 20 hours of community service per semester. I started this when I first started coaching. The reason I did is because so many people didn’t know that Delaware State had an equestrian team. I knew that the way to get any support financially or emotionally was to get us out into the community, so they would know Del State offered this unique sport.