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Tom Omara Rumson Equestrian NJ
Apr 05, 2018

Tom O’Mara Saddles Up for Equestrian Sports

By Felecia Stratton

Tom Omara Rumson Equestrian NJ

When the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) equestrian program was in danger of being dropped in 2014, Rumson resident Tom O’Mara galloped to the rescue to help save it.

How did a former investment banker who built a 30-year career on Wall Street get involved in equestrian sports?

O’Mara credits his family. “My wife and I had a shared interest: She liked to ride horses, and I liked to watch them,” he says. “Her love of horses got our four children–Casey, Abby, Meg, and TJ–involved, and they all took lessons. At first, we saw equestrian as just another sport the kids could explore. We didn’t realize how passionate we would all become.”

O’Mara’s children were devoted to the sport, and the family often traveled so they could participate in horse shows, often taking home a win. TJ won both the Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East and the Pessoa/US Hunter Seat Medal Final, which Meg had won four years earlier.

But as the O’Mara children neared college age, questions arose about what equestrian opportunities would be available to them. “We discovered that while many colleges offer club teams in six different equestrian formats, the NCAA had added equestrian as an emerging sport for women,” O’Mara says.

After “a lot of self-teaching,” O’Mara says, his daughters chose to join the NCAA equestrian teams.

Today, equestrian is a full NCAA emerging sport, providing athletic scholarships, training, tutoring, and conference and national championships. But that door might have been closed to his children, and other college equestrians, without O’Mara’s involvement. In 2002, when the NCAA began its equestrian program, the sport had not met the requirement for championship status: 40 participating schools. As a result, the Committee on Women’s Athletics recommended that the NCAA discontinue its equestrian program.

O’Mara knew it was critical that equestrian remain part of NCAA, so he got involved by becoming a member of the NCEA National Advisory Board, established by Dr. Leah Fiorentino, executive director of the NCEA. Her goal was to pull together business people from across the country who could help solve the problem, guide the sport through tumultuous times, and emerge healthy and growing.

“When I was asked to help build the sport at the NCAA level, I thought it was the least I could do,” he adds. “Having watched not just my own children, but so many young riders over the years, I knew how much they all got out of it.”

O’Mara drew on his experience in the financial industry to revive the threatened program. “The board needed to address complicated circumstances all at one time,” he notes. “This was similar to working at a financial intermediary during a crisis. Clients, corporations, regulators, politicians, employees, and shareholders all want to know what to do, and immediately.”

O’Mara got to work and, together with his fellow board members, prepared a careful and well-researched argument to the NCAA. Their efforts were successful, and the NCAA withdrew its earlier decision to drop the equestrian program, enabling O’Mara and the NCEA board to implement their plans to grow the sport. “It was well worth our time knowing that many future young riders will get the same opportunities,” O’Mara says.

Moving forward, O’Mara sees nothing but a bright future for equestrian sport. He cites the World Equestrian Games, “the Olympics of equestrian sports” that will take place in Tryon, North Carolina, in September 2018. “It will be the largest sporting event in the United States this year, and in the top five in the world,” he notes.

In addition, the U.S. Equestrian Federation, the sport’s governing body, has launched a new growth campaign – “Joy of Horse” – to open opportunities and create awareness for anyone interested in horses. Membership was up 20 percent in 2017 alone.

“In a modern world it seems odd to talk about horses, but they are still a big part of our country’s culture,” O’Mara notes. “There are many ways to enjoy horses without riding one. I am a perfect example. For me, there’s nothing like watching the Kentucky Derby with a mint julep in my hand.”