Authors: Jessie Bitler, Amanda J. Sandroni, Shelby Yeager, Helen Batisti, Diane M. DellaValle*
Nutrition, Athletic Training and Exercise Science Department (NATES), Marywood University, Scranton, PA, USA
Diane M. DellaValle, PhD, RDN, LDN
2300 Adams Ave
Scranton, PA 18509
Jessie M. Bitler, MS was a graduate student at the time this study was conducted, and this was her thesis research.
Amanda J. Sandroni is a graduate student and dietetic intern at Marywood University. Her research interests focus on food allergies and intuitive eating in college students.
Shelby W. Yeager MEd, ATC, LAT, FMSC, NASM-CPT, PES, CES is an Associate Clinical Professor of Exercise Science and Athletic Training at Marywood University. Her interests focus on functional movement screening and injury prevention in athletes.
Helen E. Battisti, PhD, RDN, CDN was an Assistant Professor of Nutrition at the time this study was conducted. Her research interests include the use of the horse in psychosocial therapy.
Diane M. DellaValle, PhD, RDN, LDN is an Associate Professor of Nutrition. Her research interests include improving nutrition status and performance of collegiate athletes.
Who Are the Undergraduate Equestrians in the Intercollegiate Horseshows Association, and What Are Their Lifestyle Habits?
As there is currently little research available on collegiate equestrians, the purpose of the current study was to describe the health and lifestyle habits of undergraduate members of the Intercollegiate Horseshows Association (IHSA). This cross-sectional study consisted of an online survey of demographic, riding, health, and academic characteristics. Participants (n=528, 20.3±1.4 years old, 96% female, 91.7% white; BMI 23.2±3.7 kg/m2) reported 11.7±4.5 years of riding experience. Most reported very little to no alcohol consumption, and not smoking. Eighty-three percent reported 1-3 servings/day of both fruits and vegetables, and 84.6% reported sleeping 6-8 h/night. GPA was negatively related to the number of naps reported (r=-0.19, p<0.001), and alcohol servings (r=-0.15, p=0.001). Work hours per week was negatively related to hours of sleep per night (r=-0.14, p=0.006), and positively related to alcohol servings (r=0.12, p=0.03). Greater physical activity (PA) time within sport was related to more experience (r=0.13, p=0.003), horse ownership (r=0.30, p<0.001), greater vigorous PA time outside of sport (r=0.25, p<0.001), and more fruit consumed per day (r=0.16, p<0.001). While our results did show that these equestrians engaged in healthy lifestyle habits, we found that taking more naps and drinking more alcohol were both negatively related to student GPA, and that working more hours was negatively related to hours of sleep per night and was positively related to drinking more alcohol. It is important to describe the characteristics of this group due to their uniqueness in order for College and University Services to develop health and nutrition programs appropriate to serve their unique needs.
Keywords: horse riders, collegiate athletes, BMI, Fruit and vegetable intake, Alcohol intake, Sleep, Smoking
In the United States, there are more than 460,000 student athletes competing at various levels. In order to participate in a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sport, students must complete a series of steps starting with their freshman year of high school (Student-Athlete Eligibility, 2015). Intercollegiate athletes have been shown to ingest more alcohol in comparison to non-athletes and often do not have adequate nutrition to meet the energy requirements for their sport (Weaver, C. C., Martens, M. P., Cadigan, J. M., Takamatsu, S. K., Treloar, H. R., & Pedersen, 2013). Proper nutrition is vital for health and athletic performance and without it, athletes are at risk for a variety of problems. These problems include: unwanted loss of muscle mass; menstrual dysfunction; hormonal disturbances; suboptimal bone density; fatigue; injury; illness and slower recovery (Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, 2016).
Twenty-four colleges and universities in Divisions I, II and III have equestrian athletes competing in the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA), which is for elite female riders and they must be an accomplished equestrian as part of recruitment (NCEA, 2017). Currently, equestrian is on the NCAA’s Emerging Sports list. Compared to the 24 sports teams in the NCAA, little health information is available on competing equestrian athletes. Most of the available data are related to equine therapy, psychology and eating disorder prevalence, rather than the health of the individual athletes themselves (Davies & Collins, 2015).
The Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) was formed in 1967 and consists of 9000 members from 40 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada (Home of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, 2017). The IHSA allows these undergraduate students and alumni from participating institutions to compete in horse shows regardless of economic status and riding experience. According to its mission, the IHSA provides riders of all skill levels the ability to compete as an individual or as a team. Riders can compete at the regional, zone, and national levels. Members can have very little experience, and it is not necessary for them to own their own horse (Home of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, 2017). This attitude sets the IHSA apart from other collegiate athletics. For membership in IHSA, students need only to be enrolled full-time at a participating school, fill out an online form, and pay $40-$60 in dues each year (Home of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, 2017).
As there is currently little research available on collegiate equestrians, and no available health data on IHSA members specifically, the purpose of the current study was to describe the health and lifestyle habits of undergraduate student members of the IHSA.
This study was a cross-sectional survey, approved by our University’s Institutional Review Board, conducted to examine the lifestyle habits of undergraduate college students participating in the IHSA. Participants were invited, via email from the IHSA, to participate in an anonymous online survey (Harris et al., 2009). The email invitation explained the purpose of the study, eligibility criteria, the amount of time for completion, the risks and benefits of participation, that the participation is voluntary, contact information for questions regarding the study, informed consent, and a link to the online survey. Informed consent was implied when the students opened the link and proceeded with the survey. There was no compensation to participate in the survey. Students were informed that if they chose not to participate in the study, it would not affect their relationship with the IHSA or their college/university. The survey remained open for three weeks.
To be included in the study, participants had to be a current undergraduate student member of IHSA. A list of the eight zones with participating states and provinces can be viewed on the IHSA website (Home of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, 2017). Participants were required to be over age 18 years of age, be able read and write in the English language, and be able to receive emails through their university’s email server and have the resources available to access an online survey.
Materials and Procedure
The researcher-designed survey asked participants to self-report demographic information, academic major, overall GPA, horse ownership, riding style and years of riding experience. Self-reported height and weight were used to calculate body mass index (BMI). The participants were asked about the number of minutes they spend engaging in physical activity (PA) per day, per the IPAQ (Lee, Paul H., 2011). Information regarding hours of sleep was also collected.
Fruit and Vegetable Consumption. Participants were asked to report the number of both fruit and vegetable servings consumed per day by choosing from a range of zero to greater than five servings. Serving sizes were defined in the questions.
Alcohol and Tobacco Use. Alcohol consumption was assessed by self-report of number of drinks consumed per day by choosing a range from never to greater than five drinks per day. Serving sizes for alcoholic beverages were defined in the question. The participants were also asked in a yes / no question if they smoked tobacco cigarettes. If they answered yes, they were asked the number of cigarettes smoked per day, for which they were given a range of less than one, up to greater than 20 cigarettes per day. They were also asked if they used any other tobacco- or nicotine-containing products such as e-cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars, or nicotine replacement products (e.g. patch, gum, or lozenge).
Employment. Participants were asked if they were employed outside of school (e.g. full-time, part-time, or not-employed). If a participant was employed full-time or part-time, they were asked to provide the number of hours they work per week (e.g. less than 10 hours up to greater than 40 hours).
Descriptive statistics were performed using SPSS software version 25.0 (IBM, Armonk, NY). Continuous data were analyzed using mean±SD, and relationships between those variables using Pearson’s correlation coefficients. Categorical data were analyzed using frequency distributions, and relationships between those variables using Spearman’s correlation coefficients. Significance level was set at p<0.05 for main effects.
The research study consisted of n=536 participants, n=2 were excluded for not completing the survey, n=2 more were excluded for indicating they had graduated, and n=4 were excluded for being under the age of 18 years. This left n=528 participants included in this analysis. This satisfied the requirement of 162 participants needed to achieve a statistical power of 80%.
Demographic characteristics of the sample are presented in Table 1. Of the n=528 participants, 96% were female (96%), 91.7% were white, 94.7% were not Hispanic or Latinx, and the mean age was 20.3±1.4 years. The mean BMI calculated from self-reported height and weight was 23.2±3.7 kg/m2. The majority of participants reported majoring in Science/Mathematics/Computer science (26.1%), Animal Studies/Equine Science/Veterinary/Animal Science (20.3%), and Business/Finance/Management (11.4%). The self-reported GPA of participants was 3.4±0.4 on a 4.0 scale (range: 1.7 – 4.0). Three percent of participants reported that they worked full-time, 66.3% worked part-time, and 30.7% were not employed. Of those reporting any employment, 20.5% worked less than 10 hours/week, 33.9% worked 10-20 hours/week, and 3.4% worked greater than 30 hours/week.
Table 1. Demographic characteristics of study participants (n=528)
|Frequency (n)||Percent (%)||Mean±SD|
|Ethnicity||Hispanic or Latino||14||2.7|
|NOT Hispanic or Latino||500||94.7|
|Race||American Indian/Alaska Native||1||0.2|
|Black or African American||2||0.4|
|More than one race||21||4.0|
All eight competition zones of the IHSA were represented in this sample, as shown in Table 2 (Home of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, 2017). The mean riding experience of the participants was 11.7±4.5 years. Of those respondents, 43.6% owned their own horse. Reported riding style was mostly English (64.8%), with 8% riding Western, and 26.3% reported they rode both English and Western.
Table 2. Riding characteristics of study participants (n=528)
|Frequency (n)||Percent (%)||Mean±SD|
|Both English & Western||139||26.3|
|Riding Experience (years)||11.7±4.4|
The distribution of reported physical activity (PA) in the sample is shown in Figure 1. Just over 44% reported engaging in PA within their sport for 30-60 minutes per day. In daily vigorous PA outside of their sport of horseback riding, 29.7% reported less than 15 minutes per day, 29.5% reported 15-30 minutes per day, and 25.8% reported 30-60 minutes per day. In daily light PA outside of sport, 30.7% reported 15-30 minutes per day and 34.1 % reported 30-60 minutes per day.
Figure 1. Distribution of participants’ reported minutes of physical activity (PA) per day (n=528)
34.8% of the sample reported sleeping 6-7 hours, and 33.5% reported sleeping 7-8 hours per night. 35.6% reported not napping. Of those that did nap, 96.7% reported they did not nap more than once per day. For the participants that took naps, 24.0% napped for 30-60 minutes. Just over30% reported consuming one fruit serving per day, 34.5% reported consuming two fruit servings per day, 18.8% reported consuming three servings per day, 11.0% reported consuming greater than three servings per day. 33.9% reported consuming one vegetable serving per day, 33.0% reported consuming two vegetable servings per day, 15.9 % reported consuming three vegetable servings per day, and 10.3% reported consuming greater than three servings per day. Just over34% reported that they never drank alcohol, 46.6% reported that they consumed less than one serving of alcohol per day, and 10.8% reported consuming one serving of alcohol per day. Only 10.8% of the sample reported consuming two servings of alcohol or greater per day. 98.1% of the participants reported that they did not smoke cigarettes. Of the 1.9% of the entire sample that smoked cigarettes, 84.4% smoked less than one cigarette per day. For other products that contained nicotine, 1.9% of the entire sample reported using e-cigarettes, 0.2% reported using chewing tobacco, and 0.2% reported that they smoked cigars.
Horse ownership was related to years of experience (r=0.30, p<0.001). Self-reported GPA was negatively related to the number of naps reported (r=-0.19, p<0.001), and alcohol servings consumed (r=-0.15, p=0.001). Work hours reported per week was negatively related to hours of sleep per night (r=-0.14, p=0.006), and positively related to alcohol servings reported (r=0.12, p=0.03). Reported fruit consumption was related to vegetable consumption (r=0.43, p<0.001). Greater self-reported PA time within sport was related to more experience (r=0.13, p=0.003), horse ownership (r=0.30, p<0.001), greater vigorous PA time outside of sport (r=0.25, p<0.001), and more fruit consumed per day (r=0.16, p<0.001).
The purpose of this study was to describe the lifestyle habits of undergraduate student IHSA members. Data was obtained from a large number of participants in all IHSA zones throughout the United States and Canada, which makes this a representative sample of the population. This representative sample reported a mean BMI in the normal range and engaging in healthy lifestyle habits. They reported the inclusion of fruits and vegetables in their diets, getting adequate sleep, being physically active, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco use. Not surprisingly, greater self-reported PA time within the sport of horseback riding was related to more experience, horse ownership, greater vigorous PA time outside of sport. Having access to their own horse and greater experience would lend themselves to increasing one’s activity within the sport, and naturally, when one is more active within one are, PA tends to trickle over into other areas (Crouter et al., 2013).
Participants in this study reported drinking little to no alcohol. This differs from data collected that shows college athletes demonstrate higher rates of binge drinking than their non-athletic peers (Weaver, C. C., Martens, M. P., Cadigan, J. M., Takamatsu, S. K., Treloar, H. R., & Pedersen, 2013). Competitiveness has also been associated with increased alcohol use in males, and lower alcohol consumption in females. As previously stated, 34.3% of participants in the current study reported not consuming any alcohol, and 46.6% reported consuming less than one drink per day. Weaver et al. reported athletes’ mean alcohol intake as 6.52±9.10 drinks per week (males: 11.69±13.49; females: 4.87±6.47) (Weaver, C. C., Martens, M. P., Cadigan, J. M., Takamatsu, S. K., Treloar, H. R., & Pedersen, 2013). Using the current study’s data, it is difficult to estimate whether male equestrians would have a significantly higher alcohol intake compared to the females, as the current sample of IHSA members used in this study was predominantly female, and reported low alcohol intake, overall. This could be for health reasons, or perhaps associated with high level of competitiveness in these female riders. We did find relationships between reported GPA and alcohol servings consumed (r=-0.15, p=0.001), as well as work hours reported and alcohol servings reported (r=0.12, p=0.03). Negative effects of alcohol on student performance has been reported previously (Balsa et al., 2011; Hendriks et al., 2020; Piazza-Gardner et al., 2016). As for the relationship between work hours and alcohol consumption, those students reporting working more hours were older, and more likely to report relatively higher alcohol servings. This could be due to trying to combat the stress of working while being a student athlete (Jennings et al., 2018).
We found that athletes in this study reported modest intake of fruits and vegetables (most reported 1-2 servings per day of each), and that greater time spent horseback riding was related to more fruit consumed per day. In one study of youth athletes (10-18 years of age), a majority ate as little as one vegetable serving per week (74 %) (Coutinho, L. A. A., Porto, C. P. M., & Pierucci, 2016). This, combined with high intake of baked goods high in sugar, resulted in those athletes being deficient in their intake of micronutrients. Our data is in contrast to that study perhaps due to age and knowledge differences between the two study populations, as the current study population was slightly older than the pentathletes (Coutinho, L. A. A., Porto, C. P. M., & Pierucci, 2016).
This study does not go without limitations. Firstly, the data collected was based on participants’ self-report, making the data prone to self-report and recall bias. Further, responding to the survey questions, there was the potential that participants answered questions in a way they thought was more socially-desirable. For example, they may have reported higher fruit and vegetable intake, and lower alcohol intake if they thought it was more acceptable to the researcher.
Secondly, the categorical nature of the survey questions presented the possibility of participants’ answers falling in-between categories. For example, in the PA questions (per the IPAQ), participants needed to choose between “30-60 minutes” and “60-90 minutes”(Lee, Paul H., 2011). This may have made it more difficult for participants to accurately describe their level of PA, and possibly over- or under-report their PA. Also, care of their animals was likely figured into their estimates PA in some capacity, but this was not specifically asked of the participants using the IPAQ instrument. Having an equestrian-specific PA assessment tool would help researchers to describe the PA levels of collegiate equestrians, both within and outside of their sport, and taking into account all of details affecting their light, moderate and vigorous PA level estimations (Crouter et al., 2011).
Lastly, in the survey there was not an explicit question asking if these members of the ISHA were also involved with the NCEA. There is no current rule in ISHA stating that these participants cannot be concurrently involved with the NCEA. Further, school membership in IHSA changes from year to year, as schools choose their involvement in the IHSA or teams can be formed and join or leave the IHSA each year, which is unlike the NCAA and other collegiate athletic conferences. Having this additional information would have helped us to describe the PA levels and competitiveness of the sample (similar to describing NCAA athletics as Division I, II, III, etc), as being involved in both organizations simultaneously may have increased an athlete’s PA level, as well has her/his competitive level.
This is the first descriptive study conducted on members of the IHSA, and lays the foundation for future research on collegiate equestrians in the IHSA and other organizations. There is often a misconception among non-equestrians that the horse does most of the work, and the physical condition of the rider is not as important. Comparing equestrians to athletes who also use “instruments” to compete (e.g. cycles, sailboats, etc.) may be helpful in order to answer questions surrounding differences in physical condition of these highly-trained athletes.
Questions about differences in the way equestrians train and recover in comparison to other athletes should also be answered. Examining the amount of time per day equestrians spend training, the types of activities done during training sessions, and what types of PA collegiate equestrians engage in and outside of training sessions, and comparing them to athletes in other collegiate sports may answer questions about the level of physical and mental work equestrians engage in for their sport.
This study also raises questions for further examination into the lifestyle and health habits of collegiate equestrians at different levels. These habits should be described and compared between riding styles and competitive levels to determine if there are differences between disciplines (e.g. such as show jumping, dressage, and Western) due to the fact that in certain riding disciplines, physical appearance of the rider plays more of a role in the sport, which could make different competitors more prone to disordered eating, for example. It would also be important to look at self-esteem and other aspects of mental health (e.g. depression, substance use, etc.). For example, equine therapy is widely-used, and research has shown that is beneficial in a variety of areas, such as mental health issues in both children and adults. It would be interesting to see if the use of horses in sport has a positive (or protective) effect on mental health in comparison to other collegiate sports.
This was the first large-scale descriptive study on this group of equestrian athletes. The results show, based on self-reported data, that this group of athletes engages in healthy lifestyle habits, is active both within and outside of their sport, and typically maintains their BMI in the normal range. The results obtained in this study open the door for more in-depth research on this population of highly-trained, experienced athletes.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
This was the first large-scale descriptive study of this group of unique athletes.
While our results did show that these equestrians engaged in healthy lifestyle habits, we found that taking a greater number of naps and drinking more alcohol were both negatively related to student GPA, and that working more hours was negatively related to hours of sleep per night and was positively related to drinking more alcohol servings.
We know that there is often a misconception among non-equestrians that the horse does most of the work, and the physical condition of the rider is not as important. The results from this study highlight how a group of equestrians spend their physical activity time (horseback riding, and outside of riding in low, moderate or vigorous physical activity). Examining the amount of time per day equestrians spend training, as well as the types of activities done during and outside of training sessions, and comparing them to athletes in other collegiate sports may answer questions about the level of physical and mental work equestrians engage in for their sport. It is important to describe the characteristics of this group due to their uniqueness from other sports, in order for College and University Health and Athletic Services to develop health and nutrition programs appropriate to serve their unique needs.
We thank all of the volunteers and the IHSA for their time and participation in this important study. None of the authors have any financial or non-financial conflicts to disclose. This research was not funded, however, JMB did receive conference funding from our University to present this work and attend the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Conference in Minneapolis, MN in June 2018.
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