The Academic Equestrian: Back to the Future

“The least I can do is be confident for them.”

The Alfred IEA team with lots of ribbons to show. Photo by Haley Ruffner.

Riding all through high school as an Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) team member was a formative period for me, both as a horsewoman and as a team player. I learned how to adjust myself to different horses, work with and help my teammates, and accept whatever came with grace and sportsmanship.

This year, Alfred University Equestrian Director and western coach Steve Shank asked my teammate Lauren Cole and me to help assistant coach for the IEA team. I was excited to give back to the program that helped shape me as a rider, to foster horsemanship and sportsmanship in the next generation of equestrians. Throughout the semester, Lauren and I have volunteered to help at weekly IEA practices, assist with things like grooming and tacking up, and reinforce Steve’s teachings. We are extra hands and eyes for Steve, handling everything from correct splint boot placement to safe ring spacing to stirrup adjustment.

Our first two western shows were this weekend at the Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center, where our IEA team hosted alongside two others to put on one show each day. This year’s group of riders have been eager to both learn and help out, an attitude that continued all through this weekend’s shows, contributing to two smooth and relatively low-stress days. Despite the expected hiccups associated with the beginning of the season and several brand-new team members, we had a successful weekend, winning High Point Upper School team on Saturday and tying for third on Sunday.

It felt nostalgic to stand alongside a middle- or high-school girl, adjusting her number and stirrups and talking her through her nerves, knowing that not long ago I was in her shoes. For some of our riders, this weekend was their first time showing in a long time, or ever — my own first class, lead line at a 4-H show, is so distant that I don’t remember how I felt. Everyone handles their nerves differently, so helping everyone to enter the ring with confidence made me aware of everything I said and did. Some hide their worry behind nonstop talk, some go quiet, some shiver, some get giggly, and some get frantic and can’t sit still.

The tactic that I found the most useful this weekend was being positive and confident in our riders all the time. If they can’t be confident for themselves, the least I can do is to be confident for them. It counts for something to enter a show pen with the knowledge that someone believes in you. If you hear “You can do it” enough times, you might start to believe it. All of the Alfred IEA team members made me incredibly proud this weekend both with their performance and with their attitudes afterwards. Whether they won the class or didn’t place, they walked out of the arena calmly, asked about what they could have done better and what they did well, and came right back to help their teammates or hold horses.

I often hear that teaching others is the best way to learn, and although I’m not qualified to teach others how to ride, I learn more about the importance of confidence and a positive outlook with each IEA practice. Even if it’s slow progress, watching each rider start to believe in herself (or gain even more confidence) reminds me of why I started riding in the first place. Learning to ride as part of a team on unfamiliar horses inspires the personal growth that makes you instinctively square your shoulders and lift your chin whenever you’re faced with a challenge.

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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