The Academic Equestrian: Strong

“I am proud to ride on a team of strong, fit, and healthy horsemen and women who work with the bodies they have to ride effectively, regardless of size or body type.”

Photo by Ellie Woznica of Counting HoofBeats Photography

In an industry that sometimes feels dominated by the idea of the “big eq” diet, evoking images of tall, thin girls holding trophies bigger than they are, I am grateful to have coaches (and be part of a program) that encourages rider strength and health over the standard of the “perfect” horsemanship body. Both the hunt seat and western coaches at Alfred look at willingness to learn, sportsmanship, and natural ability far more than body type in choosing team members and, later in the season, point riders. Team workouts are designed to be fun, facilitate team bonding, and increase strength in muscles we use for riding, not to run us ragged or turn us into triathletes.

Having been invited to participate in the AQHA Collegiate Challenge at the 2017 AQHA Lucas Oil World Championship in November, I will compete against the top AQHA, NCEA, and IHSA horsemanship riders in the country. In preparation for this show, I’ve asked my coach what I should do differently to get ready. “Nothing,” he said. “You’re working hard and riding well. Just keep it up.” We are focused on learning about the format of the show, what maneuvers I’ll be expected to perform, the logistics of missing class and travelling to Oklahoma. One of the most rewarding compliments I can receive in practice is that I look strong, or that I have adjusted my style of riding to the horse correctly.

I am proud to ride on a team of strong, fit, and healthy horsemen and women who work with the bodies they have to ride effectively, regardless of size or body type. We are encouraged to build muscle, not to strap ourselves into waist trainers for shows. My co-captain and I stress that our riders’ show clothes must fit well and be comfortable—like any other athlete, equestrians can’t be expected to perform at their best if they are pinched or suffocated by an ill-fitting piece of clothing. We let our horsemanship speak for itself, favoring more traditional and conservative clothing over expensive and flashy bling shirts.

In a plain shirt, with short legs and a long torso, hair that I can never quite wrangle into a perfectly-symmetrical horsemanship bun, wearing chaps my grandmother made for me, I struggle to picture myself in an arena with world-class riders. But regardless of my comfort level, I earned my spot there and will do my utmost to ride like that’s where I belong. In my coaches, teammates, professors, and faculty at Alfred, I have the most supportive group of people to send me on my way and to reassure me that I am strong, hardworking, and capable of anything without trying to fundamentally alter who I am or how I ride.

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.

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