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The Academic Equestrian: Giving Thanks For Friends

Barn friends, of course.

Photo by Joyce Woznica

For most people, riding isn’t a team sport (other than the team of you and your horse). Because of this, the transition to Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) riding, where you ride for both individual and team points, can be challenging. Friendships tend to shift, riders placed in the same division struggle to reconcile their status as teammates with that of competitors, and they sometimes focus on individual rides more than the team as a whole.

Despite these initial obstacles, riding as part of a team is an experience like no other in the equestrian world, and through it I have gained some of my most valuable and meaningful friendships. I met my best friend in college, Ellie Woznica, through IHSA, and I am grateful every day that the collegiate equestrian program put me in the path of such a strong and talented person.

The opportunity to meet new people from all different backgrounds has opened my eyes to different facets of the horse industry that I never would have access to otherwise — since the IHSA is formatted for everyone from beginners to open riders, equestrians from all experience levels are on Alfred University’s team. My best friend, for example, started with equitation and hunters, and now competes on the 1.0 jumper circuit in Connecticut. She rode western for the first time during tryouts her freshman year, and was so successful that she will make her Open debut in December — the highest level that IHSA offers.

In contrast, I showed at local open shows, a few small reining shows, and rode IEA during high school. Despite our coming from completely different sections of the horse world, our mutual desire to learn, passion for horses, and proclivity for trouble-making brought us together.

In true weird-horse-girl form, we clomp across campus together wearing Carhartts and spurs, rushing from reining class to the Jane Austen literature class we both take. I wrangle her hair into a tight horsemanship bun and bobby pin her hat on for western shows, and she makes sure my helmet is on straight and I didn’t get boot polish on my breeches (again) at hunt seat shows. We are each other’s biggest cheerleaders and sources of moral support. Rather than getting caught in the mindset of comparing our riding abilities, we genuinely want the other to do well, regardless of whether we’re competing against each other or other schools’ riders.

I learn from and try to emulate Ellie’s form and style hunt seat, and look up to the meticulous care she takes of her horses. We have fun whether we’re lost on a trail ride, sitting in the library studying and wishing we were at the barn, or stumbling around our apartment kitchen at 5:30 before morning practice trying to make toast. An equestrian friendship grows outside of the show pen — it’s limping up the stairs together after a stirrupless ride, comforting each other after a bad practice, and slogging through a muddy pasture before dawn with phone flashlights, looking for a discarded shoe.

In my experience, it’s rare to find such a steady and unwavering friendship in a situation where you have to ride against each other, but if a friendship can withstand the force of horse show nerves and the short temper that comes with stress, it will last forever. Thank you to all my equestrian friends for always reminding me why I love this sport, for picking me up and dusting me off when I fall, and for showing me how much I still have to learn.

Happy Thanksgiving, and go riding!

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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