USC’s equestrian coach has always loved horses. Now she’s making the rest of the sports world take notice too.
By Kyle Heck
July 9, 2013
USC equestrian coach Frances “Boo” Major’s first love was horses. For her, it was never a question of what she would do with her life. By age 3, Major was already riding a horse.
Now, 51 years later, Major has been an equestrian instructor for nearly 30 years and is in her 16th year at South Carolina.
When she first took the job in 1997, only a handful of schools offered equestrian as even a club sport. Now, the sport is in its first year of Southeastern Conference recognition, and varsity membership is up to 18 schools in Division 1.
If you want a reason, look to Major, say those who have ridden for her and those who coach against her. USC was one of the original six equestrian teams when the NCAA recognized it as an emerging sport in 1998.
“She’s been in it from the beginning,” said Greg Williams, who is also in his 16th year as Auburn’s head coach. “When we first started looking at these changes and proposing a head-to-head format, she had to help bring her team on board early. That was all of us from the SEC leading the charge.”
Equestrian is now on the same level as football, basketball and baseball, something that seemed unimaginable when Major first took over the reins. But, she said, “it’s still tough” getting people to warm up to equestrian. And her salary is far behind the head coaches in those big spectator sports, though USC’s trustees gave her an $8,500 raise this year to $93,600.
“I feel like I have been in it from the beginning. We had to make up the rules, we had to come up with the NCAA stuff, we had to come up with the number of scholarships offered,” Major said. “But now, we look at where we are now, and it is a totally different place. I think we’re still trying to grow the sport, it’s an ongoing process, but I think we are going in the right direction.”
Sophomore Katherine Schmidt said Major was one of the main reasons she decided to come to USC.
“I had looked at other schools to go riding at, but I didn’t feel like I was at home,” Schmidt said. “Then I looked her, and it was more welcoming from the beginning.”
That connection Major makes with her athletes is one of the main reasons that so many players decide to come to USC. The Gamecocks won the inaugural SEC championship this year and won National Collegiate Equestrian Association national titles in 2005 and 2007.
What’s even more pleasing to Major is that she has been able to grow the sport and her program in her own backyard. She was born in Columbia and graduated from USC with a broadcast journalism degree in 1981. All three of her sisters live in and around Columbia, as does most of her mother’s side of the family.
So it was a no-brainer when Major first heard about the USC coaching job after she had been teaching equestrian for 20 years. Major felt like she had the experience, so she applied, and the rest is history.
“It means a lot to me to be able to raise my son in this area, be involved with the alma mater and be in my hometown,” Major said. “Whenever we have recruits in, they’ll ask, ‘Do you like Columbia?’ I’m on the prejudiced side because I was born in Columbia, and I graduated from USC.”
Major has been “one of the biggest advocates and facilitators in moving the sport forward,” said former USC rider Kristen Terebesi, who in 2008 became the first in Varsity Equestrian National Championship history to win two individual championships in the same season.
Jennifer Wood, one of the team’s original members who was there when Major was hired, said that when Major took over the team and program started to come together and grow.
“She’s good at explaining what it means to be a part of a team because most kids coming in have never done that,” Wood said. “Equestrian is a very individual sport, so I think that was a big thing, just coming in and learning how to be a part of a team.”
Current and former riders say Major is able to relate and bring out the best of them with a caring and fun-loving attitude.
“She was always willing to joke around with us, and we had a lot of fun,” Wood said. “We worked really hard but we were able to laugh at the same time.”
And after nearly two decades of laying that foundation and building on it, Major says she has no intentions of leaving the Gamecocks any time soon.
“To me, that’s the testament,” she said. “There must be something special about it if I haven’t left.”