Haley Ruffner shares her experience of competing in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association Western National Finals, where–no big deal–she placed 2nd in the country!
When my Interscholastic Equestrian Association journey as part of Alfred University’s high school team began two years ago, I expected it to be a side hobby–an unimportant, low-stakes show season until my real show season started. Little did I know that it would completely revolutionize how I looked at the sport of riding.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with IEA, it is a horse show organization for middle- and high-school aged equestrians in which exhibitors randomly draw a horse and are expected to show it with potentially no previous experience riding said horse. For jumping classes, riders have the option of taking two warm-up fences before they begin their judged course; in rail classes and reining, however, exhibitors are allowed no riding time whatsoever before their class. The random selection of horses levels the playing field considerably–it shows who knows how to sit pretty versus who knows how to really ride.
This aspect of showing endeared me to IEA even more because, as is evident in the horse show world, sometimes riders with ineffective equitation still place well due to a well-seasoned or push-button horse. In IEA, this advantage was removed from everyone. Obviously there are variations in the horses in each class, but most facilities try to even out the skill level of horses in each class so as not to present an unfair advantage (or disadvantage) to any one rider. In IEA, it’s all about working through issues that you might have with a certain horse or type of horse rather than perfecting your riding on one horse. Although sometimes frustrating, it’s infinitely more beneficial in the long run.
I ride on Alfred University’s hunt seat and western teams under coaches Nancy Kohler and Rebecca Jacobson for hunt seat, and Kristen Kovatch and Ashley Sinclair for western. They are all significant contributors to the reason I love IEA–together, they have made me not only a better rider, but a better person in the years I’ve ridden for Alfred. They somehow have the ability to manage a barn full of approximately 50 horses as well as mesh the very diverse group of girls on both teams into two cohesive, functional units for the duration of the IEA show season (I’m not really sure which is more difficult).
As I reluctantly unpack from a very successful trip to Oklahoma City for the IEA Western National Finals, I must express my extreme gratitude to my western coaches for bestowing upon me their expertise in reining. This year was my first showing in the IEA’s Intermediate reining division and I know that it would not have been possible without the support of Kristen especially, who tolerated my incessant questions on reining and inquiries as to whether I could have another reining lesson this weekend, please?
At Nationals this year, I showed in the Varsity Intermediate team reining. Before I even mounted my horse, my coaches both told me that they were proud of me no matter what happened during my pattern. Although they were both visibly nervous, their reassurances dissipated the violent butterflies that had waged war in my stomach all morning. Kristen and Ashley both possess the invaluable innate ability of knowing exactly what to say to a nervous rider before he or she enters the arena. After being disqualified at the Zones show for overspinning (a source of much shame for me), it was as if they knew those words were the ones that would make me stop worrying about things I couldn’t change and step into the arena with my “game face” on. After an overall successful run on my amazing palomino draw, Per Capita Chex, I was tied for first and ended up second when the tiebreaker judge was asked to give his opinion.
Most would think that the highlight of my show was the second place ribbon, but for me, it was the knowledge that both of my coaches would truly have been proud of me no matter what color ribbon (if any) I had earned.
Haley Ruffner is a 15-year-old junior at Allegany-Limestone high school in the small town of Allegany, NY. Since catching the “horse bug” at age five, she has competed locally with her own horses and recently joined Alfred University’s hunt seat and western IEA teams. She is the owner and trainer of a quiet but very green five-year-old Quarter Horse, At Last an Invitation (“Cricket”). An avid reader and writer, Haley’s current plans for the future are to attend Alfred University to major in English and minor in Equestrian Studies.