The Academic Equestrian: Being an Athlete

Horseback riding is certainly an athletic endeavor, but it’s not always understood by athletes in traditional field or team sports. Haley Ruffner struggles with this identity as she prepares for Nationals.

Teammate Ellie Woznica in the gym. Photo by Haley Ruffner.

As IHSA Nationals approaches, I have set a goal of going to the gym every day until we leave for the show. In addition to a rigorous practice schedule (I ride at least once a day), the extra cardio and lifting will make me fitter and stronger in the saddle. My coaches emphasize strength in our practices, always encouraging us to do more core and leg exercises that will translate to a more solid core, seat, and leg in the saddle. Oftentimes in the horse world, we feel pressure to work out or diet to lose weight and get the “equitation body,” but my coaches have always been focused on fitness and strength, not body size or shape.

Although the equestrian teams have been partially accepted as a legitimate sport at Alfred University, we don’t have the same privileges as the other varsity and NCAA sports. In reserving the fitness room, we rank above clubs but below all other sports. We do not have a trainer assigned to us to format the most effective workout routines, but we make the best of it with captain-led workouts instead. On the Saxon Pride board in the gym, listing teams’ community service hours, GPAs, and the like, we are not posted despite having one of the highest GPAs overall of any team at Alfred. Our western team has won the region and had riders make it to Nationals for as long as I can remember (and our season runs for the entire academic year), but no more than one rider per year has ever been named Athlete of the Week.

Because we have to schedule additional gym workouts on our own time and not as part of a pre-established practice schedule, we often use the gym individually or in small groups of differing athletic inclinations. I played softball all through high school, so I came to college with a basic knowledge of conditioning and weight training, but some of my teammates who only ride lack that foundation — because our sport takes place far away from any gym, some of us are lost in the maze of weights, ellipticals, and machines.

We are more at home hefting western saddles in a crowded tack room than shouldering past droves of football players to use a hip abduction machine. During the past two years, we have implemented mandatory captain-led workouts in the gym, which has started the process of making us an athletic presence on campus and helping our members feel more comfortable in the gym. The extra gym workouts have helped our riding and maybe had the added effect of making our co-athletes take us more seriously as a sport, although I still get “So you just sit there, right?” often.

I find myself pushing extra hard in the gym, outfitted in an Alfred University Equestrian shirt and baseball hat, because I want to be taken as seriously as an athlete as I am a horsewoman in the eyes of the people who differentiate the two. I hate cardio, but I make time between classes to run the stairs in the gym for my allotted ten minutes each day, blaring the Rocky theme song through my headphones and hoping passersby won’t notice I’ve sweated through my shirt. On machines, I test myself to see how much more weight I can do than the week before — having to prove I belong somewhere has turned out to be an excellent motivator.

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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