By Jan Westmark Bauer
Portraits by Keagan Phillips
Madigan Eppink grew up in Clarkston, Michigan, and horses were part of her life from childhood. When Madigan began applying to colleges, she wasn’t sure where she wanted to go. “I was very much a homebody, but also wanted to live in a big, exciting city, which I wasn’t going to find in Michigan,” she said. “I applied to 11 schools, and at first, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to ride at college. I reached out to a few collegiate coaches and learned more of what it entails to be a college equestrian, but initially I didn’t get too deep into the conversations because I wanted to focus on academics, rather than riding, and I thought doing both may be too much.”
Madigan narrowed her list to her top three colleges, with Southern Methodist University (SMU), in Dallas, Texas, on top of the list. SMU was the only school of her three with a Division I equestrian team. “I still remember the day I decided to go to SMU: March 20, 2018,” Madigan said. “SMU was exactly what I was looking for: a small, academically excellent, top-tier university in a big, vibrant city. I really liked the charm of the South and being in downtown Dallas was a major bonus. After I committed to SMU for academics, I reached back out to the head equestrian coach and after several conversations, evaluations and alignment of goals, I was offered a spot on the team. I was thrilled, and on April 5, while on my senior spring break trip, I committed to ride on the SMU Equestrian Team.”
Now 22 and a graduate student at SMU earning her master’s degree, Madigan plans to pursue a career in business and eventually go to medical school. She still loves life in the big city of Dallas and being part of the SMU equestrian team, adding that, “In the time that I’ve been on the team, SMU Equestrian has won three conference championships, and one reserve national title.”
What appealed to you about SMU?
SMU appealed to me right from the start because it has a small-college vibe, it’s rooted in history and has an amazing campus, right in the middle of a big city. SMU’s slogan is “Pony Up,” so, being a horse-girl, that got me excited right from the start, too! Safety was a huge factor for me, and I love how safe SMU is. I remember during my first semester at SMU when it got cold, a golf cart with a heater picked us up from the library when we finished studying late at night and drove us back to the dorms. Safety in a big city is sometimes hard to find, but I’m so glad I found both at SMU.
What is your major?
I came to SMU with the dream of becoming a medical doctor. I completed my undergraduate degree in 2022 in biological sciences from SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. While earning my biology degree, I completed all the prerequisites for medical school as well as earned two minors: the first in business administration and the second in chemistry.
The opportunity arose to ride on the team an additional year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in all NCAA athletes being granted an extra year of eligibility. I immediately capitalized on this opportunity, modified my immediate plans and decided to pursue a master’s in finance through the Cox School of Business. SMU’s Cox School of Business is one of the best in the country, so I knew if I had the opportunity to spend another year on campus, I needed to take advantage of the world-class education offered at Cox. Additionally, I knew a degree in finance, combined with my background in the sciences, will differentiate me as I move into my career by giving me a unique combination of skills and insight. I plan to graduate in May of 2023 with my master’s degree and pursue a career in the business world before going back to medical school one day.
Tell us about the riding program at SMU.
Our riding program at SMU is special for so many reasons. We have wonderful coaches, beautiful horses and amazingly dedicated and talented teammates. The equestrian team is an integrated part of SMU athletics, so we’re able to take advantage of campus-wide fitness and nutrition programs, academic excellence and support systems, and general camaraderie and pride between all the SMU teams.
Our equestrian team is smaller than many of the schools we compete with, which turns out to be a big advantage for us. Because we’re smaller in numbers, each person on the team is critically important, everyone is impactful and all are treated equally, no matter if they are an incoming first-year student or an upperclassman, if they complete on the roster at every meet or if they haven’t yet gotten their chance to do so. Formally, we practice three days a week, riding a different horse each time. We can also come out and flat the horses whenever we want, which is nice especially if we have a competition coming up. I typically go to the barn every day to exercise the horses, get in an extra ride, or just check in to make sure they are all doing well and to sneak them a treat. Having really nice horses is something SMU is known for and getting to know each horse and their personalities is something I really enjoy about our team. My favorite horse on the team is Zalando, aka Zulu. He’s been my care horse for four years, and I love him! He is a bit unconventional but has the biggest heart and always tries his hardest. My favorite part of a meet day is getting Zulu ready in the morning, always getting there extra early to let him stretch his legs on the lunge line, wash his four white socks until they glow and braid his mane so he’s ready to do his best.
I compete in the flat event for SMU. In college riding, there are four events: two Western (horsemanship and reining), and two hunt seat (flat and jumping). The flat is fun because it’s something quite different from what we do in individual, non-collegiate horse show competition. It’s much closer to dressage: It has 10 judged elements, and is held in a 20- by 40-foot ring where we execute the maneuvers between the letters. I have really enjoyed getting to learn and master the flat patterns during my time at SMU; it’s definitely something that takes time to learn, but once you get it, it’s a lot of fun!
Have you had any great team riding experiences at SMU?
Throughout my years on the team, I’ve had the opportunity to compete on the roster beginning my second year. I love entering the ring, wearing my school’s letters and doing my very best to earn my point and help my team win each meet. I’ve enjoyed traveling throughout the United States to compete against some of the country’s best schools, as well as traveling to the Conference finals and the National Championships each year. I was also honored to be one of the team’s captains my senior year and to be nominated for the SMU Athletic Department’s S.P.I.R.I.T Award in 2022.
Did you show prior to college?
Growing up, I rode with a local trainer in Michigan. I competed on the local “A” circuit in Michigan, from ponies up until I got my equitation horse in 2015. Newsflash 3E, known as Flash, was my horse through my entire Junior career. We purchased him in Canada when he was just 5 years old and began showing in the Children’s Hunters. Eventually we moved up to the 3’6” Equitation and competed at Indoors during my last few Junior years. Having only one horse through all my Junior years, and mostly showing in Michigan, is not the typical background of most athletes who ride in college. In many ways, I think my Michigan background and hard work ethic may have set me apart a bit in the college recruitment cycle. Everyone on our SMU team comes from different backgrounds, and I believe those diverse backgrounds are what make our team as successful as it is today.
Being part of a team and having 35 instant friends and their support made the transition to college and being 1,200 miles from home so much better as an incoming first-year student. Our team has a great bond, and anyone on the team would drop what they are doing to help you in a pinch. We often joke we’re the top sorority on SMU’s campus, because that’s how we think of each other: lifelong sisters.
What advice would you give to others who are looking to ride in college?
Pick the college based on which school you see best fitting your personality, your goals and your image of what college is to you. Consider its location, its size, its academics and how it fits with who you want to be. Then pick the team. Pick a team that fits your morals so that you enjoy the team and become best friends with every person. I always say that you get out of college riding what you expect to get: If you have a negative attitude about it, you won’t enjoy it, and everything will be miserable. But if you’re like me and you have a positive outlook and a love for your team, you will love and appreciate every moment including warming up the horses, waking up at 4:45 a.m. the morning of a meet to make sure the horses are ready to go, and staying late after to make sure that everything is put away and the horses are taken care of. I enjoy those moments just as much as I enjoy competing because of my gratitude for being a part of SMU’s equestrian team.
What is something people don’t know about you?
The day after I graduated from undergrad, I got a 12-week-old sheepadoodle puppy named Ladybird, and I call her Birdie. She has been the best thing for me and has become my little shadow. She is almost 10 months old now and 55 pounds, so she has grown quickly, but I can’t wait to keep living life with her. Follow her on Instagram @ladybird.the.doodle.
For more information, visit smumustangs.com/sports/equestrian
Photos by Keagan Phillips, www.keaganphillips.com