Equestrian coach Sally Batton to retire after 2018-19 season

by Justin Kramer | 5/21/18 2:25am

Veteran head equestrian coach Sally Batton recently announced that the 2018-19 season will be her last. Recipient of the 2013 Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Lifetime Achievement award, Batton will retire from an illustrious 29-year career that saw the Big Green win five Ivy League championships, highlighted by a 2014 team appearance in the IHSA Nationals. 

A native of an urban environment in Canton, Ohio, Batton did not get her first horse until high school. Though she loved the sport, Batton was not always sure that she would become an equestrian coach.

“I actually went to the College of Wooster in Ohio first and intended to go down the vet[erinarian] track, but I took the science courses and [thought], ‘I don’t think I can do this for eight years,’” Batton said. “At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred to Lake Erie College in Ohio and it was there that I actually majored in equestrian studies.”

The Dartmouth equestrian community could not have been luckier, as after a six year stint at Centenary University in New Jersey, Batton was hired to the Big Green equestrian staff in 1990. She took over as head coach the next year.

“My first year, I did a little bit of everything,” Batton said. “I was in charge of all the programs at the farm, and at that time, there were around 150 riders per week between Dartmouth and community members. It was basically a whirlwind right from the start at Dartmouth, and I did a lot of different things.”

For years, Batton juggled her responsibilities of coaching with the responsibilities of maintaining a physical education program, summer horse shows, horse boarding and more, as the equestrian team, though a varsity sport, was under the control of the Dartmouth Outing Club and then the Dean’s Office.

“In all those years, we had some success, but it was a little hard for me because I was the only varsity coach who also had to be the director of an auxiliary and manage the community and all that, so I was pulled in a lot of directions,” she said.

Batton’s career and the team’s success took off further when the Athletics Department took hold of the team in 2011.

“I really feel that the team has thrived since then,” Batton said. “They get the recognition they deserve as a full varsity team. Having all my attention on them and them alone really improved the team and brought us even greater success. If you look at our wins in the past few years as far as the Ivies and the region, that’s post-2011. Plus, the horses only have the team on them, instead of also having beginner riders and other riders who might not be as skilled.”

The 2011 change also allowed Batton to start recruiting, which helped lead to the pinnacle of her career, the team’s 2014 IHSA Nationals appearance.

“The biggest memory and success was in 2014 when all through the years at Dartmouth, I’d had a lot of individual National qualifiers, but as a team we had never qualified,” she said. “Eventually, you can say we came in 10th out of 400 teams. That was quite a thrill and pretty much the highlight.”

While Batton’s career has been historically successful, perhaps even more impressive is how much of an influence she has had on her riders and horses. 

“What made her the most impactful for me was how open, upfront and candid she is about everything,” co-captain Claire Bick ’18 said. “It was always really nice for me to hear her direct feedback about my performance in very clear terms, and she’d always have very clear deliverables that she wanted from you.”

The equestrian team has experienced athletes competing at the highest levels down to beginners at walk-trot level, and Batton has made every effort to make them all feel included.

“[Batton] has this amazing skill for honing in on the strengths of every rider and horse that she comes across,” co-captain Olivia Champ ’19 said. “She treats everyone with the same effort, respect, and love.” 

A prime example of her inclusivity and welcoming attitude is how Batton treats freshmen.

“I think that [Batton] has a really good way of stepping back and helping freshmen when they come into the sport really think about their basic riding skills rather than jumping right into all of the finess and fine-tuning of year-round,” Bick said. “She’s able to strip a lot of the stuff away, so you can just think about the job that you need to get done at the time you need to get it done.”

For both Bick and Champ, what distinguishes Batton from most coaches is her commitment to care for the ten horses Dartmouth athletes rotate between. 

“I think that in a sport that involves animals, there’s a tendency for people to lose sight that you are working with a living, breathing thing, and [Batton] really does put the horses first and is always thinking about how your actions are going to impact them,” Bick said.

Batton’s empathy for the horses she works with hits home hard for Champ, who brought her own horse of nine years to campus during sophomore summer.

“He has been on and off with injuries the entire time he’s been here, but [Batton] has been so sensitive to trying to figure out exactly what’s wrong and to make him better,” Champ said. “That really speaks to her as a person — how much she cares about understanding these animals, getting into their minds, and bringing out the best in them.”

The team is also inspired by frequent instances of Batton’s vibrant, free-spirited personality, which even once led her to strut to the tune of “Welcome to the Jungle” on her red-streaked horse while dressed in a rockstar kiss outfit at the Ivy League Championship.

Bick’s fondest memory with Batton comes from in the ring, when Batton supported the team to a 2016 Ivy League Championship.

“That season she did a really great job of saying, ‘This is what you’re going to experience at Ivies, and this is what you need to do in order to deliver,’ Bick said. “It was a combination of us being so well prepared thanks to [Batton], and the team being able to really lay down the performance that she described for us.”

As Batton heads into retirement from coaching after next season, she will have more time to focus on the Athletic Equestrian League which she created in 2010 to increase transparency and decrease subjectiveness. The league has since spread across New England, New York, Ohio and California.

“I wanted to develop a riding league and a riding system that didn’t rely so much on subjective judging, so I developed the idea of riders of being scored,” Batton said. “They get their score sheets at the end of the horse show. I really hope to spend a lot of time on that and get that into every state in the country, so I’ll be doing a lot of traveling.”

Batton also plans to focus on her involvement in equestrian clinics, in which she travels across the country to pass on her wealth of knowledge. Nonetheless, Batton will miss her riders and the experience of coaching at Dartmouth immensely.

Before Batton departs, the Big Green riders would love to give her one last hoorah and replicate their 2014 success.

“For us to go to Nationals next year as a team would be the best send off gift possible for all the years she’s put into [coaching],” Bick said. “Right now, it’s the perfect level of everyone on the team cheering each other on, supporting each other and having the best team dynamic possible.”

As she enters her 29th and final season at Dartmouth, Batton wants to enjoy the ride and finish her career off strong.

“When they heard that I was retiring from Dartmouth, the team said, ‘Next year, we’re doing it for Sally,’” Batton said. “We hope to win the region, the zone, go to Nationals, win the Ivy, we just want to sweep the whole thing. We’re super excited about next year, and hopefully I’ll be able to go out with a bang.”

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