The Academic Equestrian: Starting From Scratch

Haley’s biggest challenge to date: colt starting.

Baby Slide. Photo by Haley Ruffner.

In most sports, athletes are measured by their instincts, precision, and passion. They hone the skills they need to be competitive and can apply them in any situation. Horses, however, are excellent at throwing wrenches into even the most careful planning, so equestrians must add another tool to their repertoire: patience. Horses seem to know when we’re rushed, and an impatient temper, in my experience, leads only to further confusion on the horse’s part and eventual breakdown of communication. It’s one thing to understand this, and another thing entirely to be able to live by it all the time.

This semester, my roommate Ellie and I are taking an independent study colt-starting class with our coach Harry Hurd. I am working with my coming two-year-old Quarter Horse gelding, Slide, and today was our first day of class. Although I have some experience with young and green horses, there’s much more pressure to do everything exactly right when you’re starting from scratch. I am lucky that Slide is quiet, good-minded, and forgiving, but even so Harry still has to remind me sometimes to slow down, break things into baby steps for Slide, and let the process take its course.

Learning under Harry’s direction and guidance is an opportunity for which I am extremely grateful, and his unflappable cowboy wisdom makes everyone calmer, horse or human. He never raises his voice, but when he speaks everyone stops to listen. This morning, he taught us to mix repetition with variety, doing things over until our colts respond, but switching between maneuvers or cues often enough to keep them from getting bored. In working with young horses, the horsemanship poker face I learned in IEA and IHSA is bumped up several notches — I have to learn to stay completely even-keeled no matter what’s going on, to not give off any nervous energy for Slide to feed off of.

The instinct that guides me on horseback is not as refined on the ground with a young horse, so I rely heavily on Harry’s input. During riding practice, I’m self-aware enough to recognize and work on fixing most of my faults, but working with babies is uncharted territory for me. I don’t feel confident or even especially competent, and because of this I find myself becoming frustrated when I do something wrong. In this respect, I feel as though I’ve gone back in time to my beginner days, when I was clumsy and in the way of my horse’s performance. I’ve learned patience with my horses, but struggle to be patient with myself.

We are taking it slow for the class, giving both colts time to physically and mentally mature and measuring progress by what they’re ready for, so this morning we stuck to the basics of moving their hips and shoulders away from pressure, desensitizing, maintaining personal space, and getting used to light saddles. Immediately after our 8 AM class finished, I got an email from my mom asking how Slide’s first day of “school” went. Judging by the picture, he was pretty proud of himself, but I place the most value on Harry’s occasional praise and pleased confirmation that both colts learned a lot today.

I will learn as much from Harry as Slide will hopefully learn from me, and the semester ahead looms with both the daunting amount of horse-training knowledge I have yet to learn and excitement for the transformation both Slide and I will undergo. This semester, I am working to become more patient with myself and my own learning curve.

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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