The Academic Eq: The Horses That Made Me

Haley Ruffner, on the eve of competing at the IHSA National Championships, reflects on the lesson horses that made her the rider she is today.

Haley aboard Frank. Photo by Ellie Woznica.

When we look back at where we started in riding, most of us have a few lesson horses to thank for tolerating and teaching us. Whether you rode a sassy pony who taught you how to fall off, a gentle old gelding who taught you to appreciate a slow trail ride, or something in between, we owe our passion to the horses who taught us to love the sport.

The first horse I ever tacked up by myself, a flea-bitten gray pony mare called Good Golly Miss Molly (“Molly” for short), was a saint for standing while I struggled to heave a saddle as big as I was onto her back. She, among other lesson horses I had the opportunity to ride, let me bounce around, hang on their mouths, sit off-balance, and make all my beginner mistakes at their expense. Somehow, they still greeted me each week with their ears up, ready for another hour of me bumbling around on their backs.

The best lesson horses have an intuition about them — they know when to challenge you, when to tell you no, and when you’ve had a bad day and need an easy ride. They know how to tickle arms, nibble at zippers, curl their soft necks around an upset rider. They know how important they are, bargaining lessons for the carrots you snuck out of the school cafeteria. They know how to say “good job” when you finally manage to do something right, and they are especially good at telling you when you’re doing things wrong.

Whatever their outward appearance, skill level, or athleticism, lesson horses have hearts of gold, caring for a relatively clueless being a fraction of their size. One such example is the time one of my university’s older geldings, a former Congress all-around horse, plodded out of his stall led by a beginner rider with his chinstrap in his mouth and his bit under his chin, altogether unconcerned — whether he trusted us to fix it, or was such a gentleman that he would have tolerated that arrangement for the whole ride, I don’t know, but either way his expression was that of unshakable patience.

As we progress in the equestrian world, it’s easy to forget that we were all totally incompetent at one point, reliant on the saintly acceptance of a lesson horse to take care of us. Today, I want to take the time to thank the horses that got me where I am today, all the way from little Molly to the reining horses that still teach me something new with every ride. These are the best-minded creatures, horses that love their jobs so much they allow us to clumsily find our balance, transition from passengers to horsemen and women.

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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