Of all equestrian lessons, this might be the most important.
In learning to ride horses, we are exposed to many physical pressures: heels down, strengthen your core, shoulders back, stretch your thighs. Somewhere in the days of tight muscles and saddle sores, of counting bruises after a fall, of contemplating our metamorphosis from non-horsey civilian to bowlegged equestrian, we realize that our minds evolve along with our bodies. Every ride is a learning opportunity, whether it be on your own horse you’ve had forever or a horse you’ve never ridden before, in your backyard on a trail ride or at the Congress. As I continue to ride and improve, the more I understand how much further there is to go — if I think I know how to do something, there is always a horse that can prove me wrong.
The concepts of humility and adaptability have been reinforced for me in my venture back to riding hunt seat after three years of riding only western. My legs, finally strong enough to be comfortable in a horsemanship position or in shorter reining stirrups, feel cramped and useless in English stirrups. The confidence with which I sit a western extended jog runs for the hills when I have to sit the trot on a hunt seat horse, leaving me to watch myself in the mirror across the arena with equal parts amusement and concern for the reflection that is somehow both stiff and floppy in the saddle.
However, since the words “I can’t” have no place in the saddle, we persevere in our pursuit of competence, having the good grace to laugh at our mistakes, to pet the saintly animals who pack us around, to retain focus and keep trying no matter how little progress we think we are making.
With this mindset, the smallest breakthroughs become memorable — I remember the first time I chased a cow down the fence and turned it without thinking I was going to fall off, the feeling of nailing a lead change on a horse I sometimes struggle with, the slightest softening of a horse’s mouth when learning to give to the bit. For each time I inch closer to becoming a true horsewoman, there is another experience to keep me humble: a jump out of a spin in a reining pattern because I was showing off and started too quickly, a break of gait on an easygoing horse because I thought I didn’t need to support much with my legs, a butchered distance at the end of a jumping course that had been going well.
Sometimes in the push (from yourself, your trainer, or some combination thereof) to become a “perfect” rider, it’s easy to forget the value of mistakes, to treat them like proof of your chronic incompetence and sources of frustration rather than chances to reevaluate, laugh at yourself, and embrace the inherent humility that comes with our sport.
Haley will continue to share more adventures from the perspective of a collegiate equestrian! Keep an eye out for The Academic Equestrian weekly.
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.