Over the past 20 years, there haven't been many schools in the country with more athletics success across the board than Ohio State.

Over the past 20 years, there haven't been many schools in the country with more athletics success across the board than Ohio State.

And by the numbers, the equestrian team quietly is making a strong case to be considered the school's top team.

Ollie Griffith, who has coached the team with his wife, Debbie, since it was started more than 20 years ago, said he was told by an athletics director at the school several years ago that the equestrian team indeed is the most successful program at the university.

Last May, the team traveled to Los Angeles and won its ninth Intercollegiate Horse Show Association national championship in Western riding in 23 years of competition. Ohio State also boasts two second-place finishes, called reserve national championships.

"It's fun to say that you're a national champion," said senior Keith Ceddia, who took first place in the open reining division. "Not many people can say that."

Equestrian is a club sport at Ohio State -- there are roughly 20 schools that have teams competing as part of the NCAA -- so there is no scholarship money going to the riders. The success that Ohio State has had might lead some to believe that the school benefits from a large number of students who enter school with an extensive riding background. In fact, with the way IHSA equestrian is set up, the team benefits just as much from the members who come in with no riding experience at all.

What makes this organization unique from other college sports is that each team must compete with riders of varying skill levels, each of whom contributes equally to the team score.

The beginner division basically includes riders with little experience on a horse, and the levels increase from that point to intermediate, novice, advanced and open. The open division is broken down further into horsemanship and reining competitions. Horsemanship, in which all divisions compete, is based solely on the athlete's ability to ride and show a horse. Reining incorporates more technical moves like spins and stops.

In addition, men and women compete together on the same team. At the national meet, junior Lyndsay Nezbeth took second place in the beginner division, junior Kayla Feltz took second in intermediate, senior Hilary Bedford was first in novice, junior Sarah Phillips competed in advanced but did not place and junior Meghan Ritchey took fourth in open horsemanship.

Ollie Griffith said he always is looking for new riders because those can be the hardest ones to find. Students might not realize that they can contribute right away, even if they've never been on a horse.

"It's not like football," Ceddia said. "If I wanted to play football, they'd laugh right in my face because I'm not the greatest football player in the world."

To experienced riders like Ceddia and Bedford, being able to compete and practice alongside new riders is part of what makes equestrian at Ohio State so special.

"It's actually very rewarding because you can take all your knowledge that you've learned over the years and share it with them," said Bedford, a Hilliard native who competes in the novice division. "They're just as excited to learn as you are. They might not know as much as you do, but they want to be there just as much. It's fun, and we're all great friends."

Another aspect of the IHSA that separates it from typical quarterhorse competitions is the fact that the horses for each rider are chosen at random. Riders won't even meet the horse they'll be showing until just hours before a show. That makes things slightly more difficult and throws an element of chance into the competition, but it puts all riders on a more level playing field.

"It takes all of the money out of things," Bedford said. "It's all about how good of a rider you are, not how expensive your show clothes are and how much you spend on a horse or whether you can afford to drive three hours to a trainer that's the best in the state. That's what I really like about the college team."

The team practices at the Griffiths' Autumn Rose Farm in Dublin, where Ollie and Debbie have been giving lessons since before the program started. For the Ohio State team, which typically has between 30 and 35 members, riders are required to practice at least once a week at the farm, though the ones who compete at the national meet will ride three or four times each week as the competition approaches.

The biggest thing for Ollie and Debbie, though, is just making sure the riders enjoy their time on the horse.

"I've had students that maybe have been gone for 10 or 15 years and they still contact me," Ollie said. "I've had students tell me that it's their best experience at Ohio State. Because it's such a big school, it's nice to have some sort of family or hub to be a part of."