The Academic Equestrian: Back to School

Haley Ruffner is back for her sophomore year!

Haley and "Jerri" at a summer reining show. Photo by Rose Ruffner.

Haley and “Jeri” at a summer reining show. Photo by Rose Ruffner.

Returning to college as a sophomore means that it is no longer acceptable for me to wander around campus with every book I own in my book bag, craning my neck to look at building names and consulting a map to get to class. This year, I am supposed to know what’s going on and be as un-freshman-like as possible. Sophomores are cool. We’ve moved up in the world and wear our status as not-freshmen proudly, but we’re still young enough that we don’t have to be, you know, too put-together and responsible.

Maybe sophomore year is my time to stop showing up to class in jeans and boots, straight from the barn. Unfortunately, all evidence points to the contrary (the second day of classes found me tearing myself away from the barn after a great ride and slinking into class barely on-time with hay in my hair).

My first week back at school was spent riding in the preseason camp offered every year, preparing the horses for their busy season after a quiet summer. After tryouts, the roster for Alfred University’s western Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) team was posted this week. Our first show is only a couple of weeks away, and all the coaches, horses and team members will be working hard to prepare.

This burden falls hardest on the incoming first-year students, who are learning to adjust to a new environment, roommate, more difficult classes and the daunting independence of college in addition to the time commitment and organization necessary to ride IHSA. The roster this year seemed smaller and less familiar — we lost several talented riders whose passion and skill will be missed on the team, but its numbers were replenished with enthusiastic first-years, all of whom have already proven their dedication through pre-tryout practices and rides.

To first-years and transfer students at every school, I hope you have a fantastic year. I hope you love all of your classes, you get the best draw at every show and your roommate doesn’t snore. In the event that you encounter some difficulties along the way, here are a few words of advice from someone who (more or less) successfully completed year one.

1. School comes first. No questions asked on this one. If you’re swamped with homework or don’t feel prepared for a test coming up, talk to your coaches and captains and let them know you’re struggling. They should always be more than willing to help you find a solution and make your riding schedule more manageable. For all I joke about wearing barn clothes to class, make sure you’re prepared with books, notebooks, writing utensils and whatever you need to actively learn and get the most out of class. College is way too expensive to blow off your education for extra pony time, as tempting as it is sometimes.

2. Keep a schedule. Know when all of your shows and practices are so that you can tell your coach of any conflicts as soon as possible. What I found to work best for me was a big calendar on my wall where I could write due dates for projects, shows, club events, community service and any other things I needed to remember. Having everything in one place helps you plan in advance if you have a big project due the weekend after a horse show — there’s nothing like coming back from a long day at the barn and realizing 20% of your grade depends on the project you turn in the next day, and you haven’t even started it.

3. Be a team player. IHSA is all about supporting your teammates, which can be an adjustment if your “team” has always been just you and your horse. The rules about sportsmanship and conduct before and during the show are in place for a reason — the experience will be more enjoyable and rewarding for everyone if you show up with a positive attitude and kind words for your teammates. This includes being a good example — even if you’re a first year, people notice when you take the extra time to help your teammates and the show staff out. If you don’t fully understand what’s expected of you, talk to your coaches, returning riders on the team and captains. In my experience, everyone has been gracious and patient even when confronted with the strangest questions.

4. Don’t overcommit. If you have a heavy course load, want to do more than one sport, participate in clubs, work part-time, or know that you struggle with time management, find out everything you can about how often you’ll need to practice and be present for events. Your first year of college is a time to expand your horizons and try new things, and if your priorities take you in other directions, don’t feel like you’re obligated to ride on a team just because you rode before coming to college.

5. Make the barn your happy place. For me, the barn has always felt like an escape from the stress of classes and all the noise on campus. I take my first deep breath of the day when I open the barn door. At the barn, there is no drama, no grading system, no neighbor blaring music. It’s you, your horse, and the quiet thrill of learning how to work with the horse you’ve been assigned. Riding is full of challenges you set yourself — no one but you knows what you are capable of, and no one but you can make the changes necessary to meet those goals. Your coaches become sources of unending wisdom in riding and everything else, and your teammates become family who want nothing more than to see you succeed.

Haley is the author of Horse Nation’s “Academic Equestrian” series, following her collegiate experience as she balances her studies with participation on the varsity equestrian team and time with her own horse. Catch up on past columns by clicking the #ACADEMIC EQUESTRIAN tag at the top of the page!

Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with minors in Business and Equestrian Studies. She owns a Quarter horse gelding At Last An Invitation, or “Cricket.” Haley is the captain of the AU western equestrian team, and also competes in reining and loves trail riding.

Photo courtesy of Haley Ruffner.

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