The Academic Equestrian: How to Catch-Ride Like You Know What You’re Doing

Haley (unmounted) giving some last-minute advice to a teammate at the 2017 National Championships. Photo by Kelsey Evoy.

The format of Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) and Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) shows is such that riders draw a horse and, with no warm-up, ride straight into their class. Riders are allowed to watch the horses warm up before the show and talk to the horse provider, but all hands-on learning of the horse occurs in the show pen, under a judge’s watch. The ability to learn an unfamiliar horse quickly and effectively is invaluable as an equestrian, regardless of discipline or level of competition. It has made me more self-aware, softer, and more adaptable to whatever situation I find myself in. IHSA and IEA also level the playing field, removing the advantage of judging partially based on who has the best horse. The best IHSA judges can look past any quirks a horse has to discern how effective and correct the rider is and how well he or she works with the horse.

When I explain to people what showing IHSA entails, they’re often shocked at how little time we have to learn our horses, commenting on how nerve-wracking it must be to trust an unfamiliar horse to carry you through a class. I started riding on Alfred University’s IEA teams (hunt seat and western) in the ninth grade after losing my first pony — for the past five years, I had almost exclusively ridden one horse only, and transitioning from that to a different horse every ride was jarring. However, on my seventh year now of riding in that format, there’s a certain rhythm to it, both in practice and at shows.

I watch warm-ups closely and take notes (especially at larger post-season shows) on how the horses perform each maneuver, how their riders cue them, and anything they do especially well or looked less-than-enthused about. Once I know my draw, I check to see if they’ll go in any classes before mine, and if so I pay attention to previous rides to get a feel for how they ride in a real class. Beyond watching, reading the horse description list, and talking to the horse provider, there’s nothing else to do but wait.

When the hurry-up-and-wait game is over, there’s just enough time to adjust my stirrups and mount up. I generally begin my interaction with my mount for the day with a horse treat (with the handler’s permission), which functions both as a bribe for good behavior and an apology in advance for the annoyance I’m likely to inflict during the next several minutes. Stirrups adjusted and even, I re-tuck everything back in (no matter how neatly you’re dressed, something always gets pulled out or twisted when you mount up), adjust my reins, and prepare to enter the ring. With a horse-handler with me until I step into the arena, I can’t really get a feel for how soft-mouthed or responsive to leg pressure he or she is until we are in the class. I have only instinct and observation to guide my cues.

Once in the arena, there’s an art to making it look like I’m focused on equitating while actually focusing on what kind of horse I’ve got under me. Harsh, sudden cues or lack of patience will show on almost every horse, so I ask slowly for everything. Even so, sometimes I still get a head toss or tail flick — these horses know their jobs better than I do, and some get offended when I presume to suggest that I’m in control of gait or direction. With each discipline, the process of learning a horse occurs at a different pace: reining and jumping occur in a split second, with no margin for error, whereas in horsemanship and hunt seat flat classes there’s a little more leeway, moments when the judge isn’t looking and may not have caught that break or missed lead. Regardless of how the ride is going, my coaches teach us to sit tall and keep riding through any hiccups, and to act like even a horse we’re not clicking with is the best ride we’ve ever had. Grace and confidence (whether it’s real or convincingly acted) goes a long way.

One thing in IHSA that never ceases to amaze me is that, despite having ridden so many different horses, no two are completely alike. Whenever I think I know what I’m doing, there’s a horse to prove me wrong, for which I’m grateful. There are few situations in life that present such a strong opportunity for growth and constant, hands-on learning, with the expectation of occasional failure built in to the system.

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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