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The Academic Equestrian: The First Trail Ride

Or, how to introduce a non-rider to your passion.

Becca and Cricket. Photo by Haley Ruffner

This summer, my coworker and friend Becca expressed a desire to come meet my horses, no doubt inspired by my inability to converse about anything else. After a few test-rides in the arena to learn basic cues and a correct seat, we set out on a trail ride.

Here’s how to take your non-horse friend riding for the first time:

Explain about halters and curry combs while Becca tells your horse how handsome he is and strokes his nose. (“Sweet Cricket,” she croons. His ego inflates with every passing moment.) Repeat instructions as necessary since she was too much in awe of your horse to pay attention the first time. Appreciate that someone besides you recognizes how precious your horse is. Demonstrate how to tack up while she feeds your horse peppermints. Find her a helmet and lend her a pair of your cowboy boots. Laugh with her as she struts around the barn, feeling like a real cowgirl in her new getup.

Teach her how to lead your horse, how to stop with a deep “whoa,” and send her off to walk him in-hand for practice, to familiarize herself with the arena. Watch her pet him and tell him “good boy” every other stride. Help her tighten his cinch and her helmet strap, then give her a leg up.

“Bend your left knee, keep your thigh straight, and jump on the count of three,” you say.

“Are you sure I’m not too heavy?” she asks. You count to three, and she flops upwards, giggling, landing with her upper body sprawled on his butt behind the saddle. You laugh too, and set her down.

“I didn’t think you could actually lift me!” Becca says when she catches her breath. (Unbeknownst to you, your mother has watched the whole spectacle from the window and jokes about it for weeks after.) You try again, and this time she lands with a leg over the saddle, still giggling, while Cricket noses at the tall grass just outside the fence, unconcerned.

After establishing a safe walk, jog, and halt, you open the gate and set off up the hill. You warn her about Cricket’s love for off-roading, his proclivity for weaving under low-hanging branches, his occasional unexpected forays over saplings or up ledges. He proves you right immediately, wandering off the trail and under a pine tree. Becca, doubled over in the saddle with laughter, guides him back around to the trail, shoulders sprinkled with pine needles.

On your walk back towards home, Cricket and Becca lead the way. He knows exactly where home is, and walks with a spring in his step. You trust him, and take up the rear with the farm dog who has followed you the entire way to babysit and “herd” the group together. When you are blocked by a giant mound of dirt and trail obliterated to make way for an oil well, you are forced to turn around and take the long way back home.

“It will be dark when we get back,” you warn Becca, but she grins. “I always wanted to be a night rider!” With several intervals of jogging to save time and a series of loop-de-loops around trees and puddles and patches of ferns Cricket deems interesting, you come down off the hill just behind the sunset, the residual glow of which lights your path back home.

Sore-legged for days after, Becca praises Cricket to anyone who listens (leaving out any mention of all the tree branches he dragged her through and unintentional bushwhacking episodes) and makes plans immediately to come ride again.

Haley will continue to share more adventures from the perspective of a collegiate equestrian! Keep an eye out for The Academic Equestrian weekly.

Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with a minor in Equine Business Management. She owns two Quarter Horse geldings, Cricket (“At Last an Invitation”) and Slide (“HH Slick N Slide”). Haley is a captain of the AU western equestrian team, competing in horsemanship, reining and hunt seat. She also loves trail riding.

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