Baylor Announces Lead Gift for Equestrian Program

News Photo 3345
Richard and Karen Willis and family.
Jan. 24, 2006

by Angela Siefkes, (254) 710-2561

The 18th varsity sport added at Baylor University recently jumped a major hurdle. Richard (BU '81, '82) and Karen (BU '85) Willis of Colleyville, Texas, have provided the lead gift for the Willis Family Equestrian Center.

The Baylor University Board of Regents directed the NCAA Division I-A intercollegiate athletics program to add women's equestrian in November 2004. The sport features two divisions: English and Western. The Baylor Equestrian team started their first season of competition Nov. 12 at a meet hosted by Texas A&M. They hosted their first scrimmage Oct. 15 at Willow Spring Farm, the program's temporary facility, and their next competition will be Jan. 27-28 at Texas A&M.

Though she only started riding nine years ago, Karen Willis has developed a deep appreciation for the sport and was thrilled to learn Baylor would be adding a team.

"It was something I was always interested in. Even as a child, I loved horses. But growing up, I thought you had to have your own horse to take up riding," Karen said. "When I finally started taking lessons, I just fell in love with it. When I heard that Baylor was starting the equestrian program, I was so excited."

Head Coach Ellen White is very thankful for the Willis' generosity.

"In a new program, they were willing to step up to the plate and be the forerunners of gifts, instead of waiting to see how successful it is. They have assured us of getting off to a successful start by making their gift up front. We just can't say enough about how much we appreciate their support. We absolutely are thrilled to have sponsors like that. They're God gifts you don't get anywhere else."

Though she's relatively new to the sport of riding, Karen and her husband, Richard, have a long-standing love and commitment for Baylor. The Willises believe deeply in Baylor's mission, and their support stems from a desire to promote the image of Baylor across the nation.

"Athletics is what people think of when they think of a university," Richard said. "It's an important part of our mission to tell people that we can compete at any level and that our Christian heritage really enhances that."

Karen agreed, "We want people to know that you can get a very good education and you can still be a Christian and have an education in that environment without losing anything."

Karen looks forward to attending events and learning from the team as they compete.

"The girls on the team are very good riders and I think I can learn a lot from watching them. There are a lot of girls that are more advanced than I am and I think it will help," she said. "I would encourage others to come out to the events as well. The team makes it look so easy but the more you understand about the sport, the more you begin to appreciate all the hard work that has gone on in the background. You can see someone jump a fence beautifully, but there is a lot of groundwork and practice that goes on before you even reach that level of riding. Those that learn what the sport is about may surprise themselves and really fall in love with it like I did."

White (BU '81), an internationally recognized dressage trainer, brings an impressive résumé to the sport. She has owned and managed Willow Spring Farm for the past 23 years breeding, buying and selling horses. She has trained with internationally known clinicians and Olympians and has received numerous awards and honors in both competition and breeding.

Women's equestrian is the fastest-growing sport in the Big 12. Since 1999, teams have been added at Texas A&M, Oklahoma State University and Kansas State University.

Naming opportunities within the center are available for anyone who would like to be a part of this program. For more information on how you can help Baylor's newest varsity sport, contact Baylor University Development, (254) 710-2561 or 1-800-BAYLOR-U, option 4.

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