The Academic Equestrian: A Nationals Recap

Haley and the team are back from Harrisburg!

The “dream team.” Photo courtesy of Haley Ruffner

The Alfred University western team, coaches, and horses returned from IHSA Nationals late last night with a sixth-place team finish and several individual placings. In addition to the usual horse show hangover, we were exhausted from the strain of caring for and preparing eleven horses to show (seven of ours, plus four belonging to Morrisville State College that we took care of) as well as finishing final exams, portfolios, and papers that were due.

We came into the show with a young team, composed of one first-year (who just joined the western team in January, having only ridden and shown hunt seat previously) and four juniors, only two of whom had been to Nationals before. Although we held our own against some very competitive teams, I am the most proud of us in ways that weren’t reflected by our ribbons.

Harry Hurd, legend in the horse world and our coach, received Best Coach award at the end of the show after we all nominated him. My team and I were a relatively stoic group all weekend, but when they announced Harry’s name over the loudspeaker, we all got teary-eyed watching him walk out to receive his award. It’s not often that we can surprise Harry with anything—he’s usually miles ahead of us—but having the change to pull a fast one on him and have him publicly recognized for the depth of knowledge, wisdom, and care he brings to our program was the highlight of our show.

Each of my teammates built up each other’s confidence all weekend and showed both sportsmanship and horsemanship while handling our horses and showing. Our beginner rider Vanessa Virgilio persevered through an arm injury to ride beautifully in her class, laying out a precise and solid pattern following a smart, strong trip on the rail. Our intermediate rider, first-year Emma VanDyne, who just joined the western team in January, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt she belonged in the western world with the best of her division, nailing her pattern and railwork.

Taylor Soderholm, who placed third in Individual Intermediate in last year’s nationals (during her first year on the western team), showed our own Kody through a challenging class with her trademark ability (which I envy) to make any horse she rides perform at its best with aids so subtle and effective they’re almost imperceptible. In Advanced, Kristie Wagner had beautiful railwork and rode through a long, complicated pattern with absolute confidence and poise. I was proud of both my reining and horsemanship rides, and had a blast on Whiz, privately owned, and Terrell of University of Findlay.

Individual riders Shaylee Picow (intermediate), Ellie Woznica (advanced), and Courtney Slack (reining) also had rides to be incredibly proud of. Shaylee, a first year and IEA alum, rode George of Morrisville State College and showed absolute professionalism and grace to go with her great ride. Ellie, a senior (and my roommate and fellow victim of Harry’s colt starting class) rode our own Frank through a class in which she showed off all the fancy buttons and moves he’d really rather not do and looked flawless herself in the meantime. Courtney, also a senior, proved she could ride with the best of them despite this being her first year reining, and managed a tough draw through a pattern. She earned a reride and came back even stronger to finish sixth in a tough class.

In addition to bringing talented riders, the horses we brought (aptly dubbed the Alfred University Dream Team) held their own amongst horses from huge schools with riding programs double or triple the size of ours. Our own Sarah (registered as Good Heavens I’m Hot), the most perfect little red mare, won Horse of the Show after carrying several of her riders to Champion and Reserve Champion finishes. We have a running joke that, when we take our horses to away shows, they always beat us, but ultimately it’s gratifying to see that our horses are among the highest caliber in the IHSA.

As always, it’s a pleasure and a valuable learning experience to ride with such a strong group of equestrians, and I hope that we can return to Nationals next year with further improvements!

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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