The Academic Equestrian: Lessons From Dad

Haley Ruffner, home from college for Thanksgiving, spends some time with her non-horsey dad and reflects on the equestrian lessons she’s learned from him.

Immediately after this photo, my dad asked, "Did you just take a smellfie?" Apparently it's from some deodorant commercial. I wasn't quite sure how to fit that into the story itself, but I thought you would appreciate it. Photo by Haley Ruffner.

Immediately after this photo, my dad asked, “Did you just take a smellfie?” Apparently it’s from some deodorant commercial. I wasn’t quite sure how to fit that into the story itself, but I thought you would appreciate it. Photo by Haley Ruffner.

“Can’t you think of one thing I’ve taught you about riding?” my dad asked recently.

The extent of his riding experience is trail riding at a walk. Once, when our horses escaped through an open gate and went to visit the neighbors, he decided that the best course of action was to immediately get the four-wheeler out to “round them up” instead of using halters and lead ropes and luring them back with grain. (The next time they got out, he remembered a bucket but forgot to put any grain in it, which was more successful than the four-wheeler but less so than actual food.) When they were all locked up safely again, he went through with a handful of hay for each one, patting their foreheads and saying, “Good girl.” (We have one mare and four geldings, but it’s the thought that counts.)

I grinned at him, considering the question. When my hesitation grew too long, he answered it himself: “I taught you how to fall gracefully.” This I cannot argue with — the first time he rode my horse, Cricket, he was too much a cowboy to listen to my instructions on dismounting. He ended up with his right foot on the ground, left still in the stirrup far above his waist. Unable to maintain that stretch and balance, he staggered backwards until his foot fell out of the stirrup, landing on his back in the arena sand. Although I’ve never managed such an impressive fall myself, I can only hope that when the time comes I will be able to apply my dad’s teachings.

My dad may not have taught me diagonals or how to do a lead change, but I owe my foundation of mental resolve, sportsmanship and perseverance to him. Lessons from my dad were not taught from the back of a horse, but from a baseball field, a woodshop and a camp in the woods. Stepping into the batter’s box with loose muscles and a level head no matter how many times I had struck out before taught me the importance of approaching each ride as a new one — the quality of a previous performance has no bearing on the present one.

In the countless hours he spent playing catch with me in the backyard, I grew to understand the value of focus and form-to-function after a few too many throws that landed far away from their target. Racing the dog to collect the baseballs strewn across the yard, I reflected that my lazy side-arm pitches never ended up in my dad’s glove — only when I set myself up correctly did I have a shot at making it. Unless I have complete control over what my own body is doing, I can’t expect to be able to make the horse I’m riding perform at its best either.

Sitting next to the woodstove with a two-by-four and a piece of sandpaper, I learned that “good enough” isn’t ever good enough. When your dad is a master carpenter and custom cabinet-maker, you learn precision in every action, whether it be sanding down a corner on a piece of wood or turning a square corner in a horsemanship pattern.

When summer winds down and firewood-cutting season begins, I find myself working through slivers and jammed fingers to hurl split logs into the back of my dad’s pickup truck. We have a steady rhythm: he runs the chainsaw, and I move the logs. When I was little, throwing firewood into the truck bed and lifting a saddle onto the back of a horse seemed equally impossible, but when giving up isn’t an option you find out what you’re really capable of.

Even when I decided not to play softball in college so that I could devote more time to riding, my dad didn’t try to change my mind. He made me a softball player and an athlete, and to this day I question whether I made the right decision in quitting that sport, but never once did he waver in his support of my riding. Most show weekends, he cuts into working hours to pull on his cowboy boots and a button-down shirt, drive to Alfred, and watch me ride. I strive every day to be more like my dad, from his work ethic to his wit. My mom may have taught me how to ride, but I owe my success equally to my dad’s influence and words of wisdom.

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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