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The Academic Equestrian: So Many ‘Lasts’

Haley’s collegiate career winds down.

Haley aboard “Trigger” from SUNY Morrisville at the 2017 IHSA Nationals, with coach Harry by her side. Photo by Kelsey Evoy.

Competing in any college sport can feel like leading a double life—your team doesn’t know about your classes and academic life, and your classmates don’t see all the work you put into practice and competitions. I am at college for my education, but my love of riding and the time demands of being on three teams and having a horse at the barn makes it feel as though I spend more time there than in classes, and yet somehow I don’t spend enough time at either place.

I am incredibly lucky to have professors who understand how important riding is to me, professors who have allowed me to miss countless classes over the past four years for horse shows, sending me on my way with their best wishes.

Last week, I missed my final week of undergraduate classes ever to help at IHSA Nationals all week before riding this weekend. After a long week and less-than-mediocre rides on my part, returning to campus for finals and my honors thesis defense was disorienting. I’ve never had so many “lasts” so close together—last undergraduate class, last IHSA show ever, last days in Alfred with the friends I’ve grown close with over the past four years. As graduation looms closer and we all move towards uncertain futures, I take comfort in the knowledge that I have a group of friends who support me through wins and losses because no matter where we end up or what we’re doing, we will be there for each other.

Every year, I’ve known what to look forward to and improve on, but this year I don’t know what will come next. I’ll never have to catch ride again and will instead enter the show arena on a horse I trained from the ground up with the help of my just-retired coach Harry Hurd. I’ll never have to count on the luck of the draw to determine the kind of ride I’ll have. While IHSA has offered me many opportunities and taught me a great deal, it feels good to look forward to new things.

For the first time in my adult life, I have the option to do whatever I want, limited only by the scope of my imagination. My days of stressing over minutiae of horse handler lists and doing homework at midnight in a hotel after the show ends are over. My team has gone from thirty-five back down to two: myself and my horse. It’s bittersweet to be at the end, of course, but there’s also a sense of freedom at moving onwards, backed by the experiences and relationships I’ve built here.

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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