The moment Larry Sanchez glanced at Oklahoma State University and Stillwater in late 1998, he knew he was in the right place.
As he drove around the town and saw families play with their children in the parks surrounding the town and marveled at OSU’s campus, he called his wife. With a small shift of his tone of voice, his wife already knew and said, “We’re moving, aren’t we?”
“At first, I came more to see what the NCAA thing was all about and wasn’t thinking about leaving New Mexico State,” Sanchez said. “But once I came to Stillwater, I fell in love with the town.”
Within a few days, Sanchez was named the first coach for the equestrian team at OSU. What came after was something he probably didn’t expect.
In his first day as coach in 1999, there were no horses for the program, the official “headquarters” of the team was a tack room behind Totusek Arena that was a quarter the size of a generic classroom, there was no running water in the locker rooms and a portable toilet was the best thing they had for a restroom.
“The girls on the club team would ride one of the girl’s private horse off campus the day before they leave for the competition and would ride that one horse,” Sanchez said. "I had to start putting together a horse herd and tacking equipment. We had absolutely nothing here.”
Sanchez was not discouraged. Coming from an athletic background, Sanchez has always had the mentality of facing things head on and using what he's been given.
“I don’t have the attitude of ever complaining about what I have," Sanchez said. “I am one of those that looks at a situation and tries to figure out what I can do with what I have. It wasn’t about the facilities; it was about the recruiting, hard work and getting the right kids in here and teaching them how to be successful with what they had.”
Within one year of assembling a team, Sanchez and the Cowgirls won their first national championship at the IHSA national show.
Fast-forward to 2013. Sanchez, donning his signature black cowboy hat, watched his team celebrate its fifth western NCEA national championship. The soon-to-be 2013 NCEA coach of the year had his team riding high into the next season.
“That season was special because all of the girls on that western team were extremely talented,” said Lauren Daniels, a former All-American horsemanship rider. “I think we were the best horsemanship team in the country, maybe ever. No one could beat us. We were like the dream team”
One year later, that excitement and drive turned into uncertainty and doubt.
Just like any 20-year relationship, there will always be low points. The NCAA’s Committee on Women’s Athletics had the equestrian world on a swivel when it proclaimed the sport’s attempt to grow as an emerging sport had failed. When the NCEA was established in 2002, the NCAA gave it 10 years to establish 40 schools to add and finance an equestrian team. At that time, there were 22 teams. Just as he remembered his first day, Sanchez was just as aware on Aug. 1, 2017, the day where the NCAA would end its funding and support of equestrian.
“A gambit of emotions was running through my head," Sanchez said. “I would ask myself, ‘am I going to have a job in the future’?”
Despite the scare, OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder assured Sanchez the equestrian team would stay intact no matter what the NCAA did.
“Equestrian has been such a great fit and provides the female participation numbers at an expense that he can afford,” Sanchez said. "That’s why he said, ‘we’re going to keep it no matter what the NCAA does.'"
Fortunately, the NCAA decided to keep sponsoring collegiate equestrian to maintain the gateway for women to be able to compete.
“Us having an equestrian team at a college campus really increases it because it gives people the opportunity to do what they want to do,” OSU rider Kristi Wiggens said.
With all the noise of his job's demise out of the way, Sanchez was able to get back to work, with nothing but growth to pursue and look forward to.
Now, every morning, the sun shines on the construction site of the new arena right beside the team headquarters, resembling what the future will bring. With the new arena, the team will be able to ride and practice every day, a luxury it did not have in the past.
“All of the upgrades in facilities that we’ve had over the last year and a half have been a game changer for my team,” Sanchez said. “Adding this new covered arena out here, which will allow us to ride every day of the year outside is incredible.”
Sanchez’s office is plastered with six Big 12 championships and five NCEA trophies set on refined wood shelves. However, even with all the accolades, OSU and the NCAA have not recognized most of them. The reason behind this is that equestrian is not an NCAA championship sport. With all the awards and accomplishments on his resume, Sanchez is taking it a step further by making the growth of the sport a priority.
“My goal is finally reaching that goal of making this an NCAA championship sport,” Sanchez said. "I would love it for our national championships to count towards that Directors’ Cup and bring another NCAA national championship to Oklahoma State.”
So far, that work is slowly paying off. The University of California, Davis, recently picked up equestrian to add to its athletics. In addition, the other competing NCAA teams are getting better, and their horses are getting faster and stronger.
“Even when I was on the team, it wasn’t as competitive as it is now,” assistant coach Sammy Elser said. “Every time we compete you’re going against better girls and nicer horses.”
Winning is not everything to Sanchez, though. Just as much as his team is a contender, it is equally, if not more, like a family. During 6 a.m. workouts, the team would see Sanchez there, making it known that he is in it just as much as they are. That bond and culture is something Sanchez has built during his tenure in Stillwater.
“I really like how Larry is like a dad figure to us,” OSU All-American rider Harley Huff said. “Him and his wife will have us over for dinner. He is very much involved with our lives. It really is like a family.”