The Academic Equestrian: The Final Fall

Our collegiate blogger Haley Ruffner starts her senior year!

Photo by Catie Donahue

Three weeks ago, I packed my bags, loaded my horse, and made my final fall drive to Alfred University. As I return for my senior year, there’s a certain wistfulness to spending time on campus and at the barn — this is the last time I’ll be here to watch the leaves change in Alfred, to help another class of first-years make themselves at home in the barn, to sit in the office before 6:30 AM practice and listen to my coaches. My favorite horses will bond with new students, ones I hope will visit them even when they don’t have practice to bring them extra peppermints.

This year is the culmination of three years of my saying, “I’ll come back even stronger next season,” and I intend to make it count. My showing and riding career won’t stop with IHSA, but collegiate riding has been the platform on which I’ve built my identity as a rider, both through showing and through the riding, judging, barn management, and colt starting classes I’ve taken at Alfred. In addition to riding on both the western and hunt seat teams, I have my two-year-old, HH Slick N Slide “Slide” at school with me again this year. After taking the annual Reining class twice now, I am the teaching assistant for it this year, putting in some hours in the saddle with Slide while sharing my experience with Alfred’s reiners with the next group of riders who are learning to love it.

Although my teammates have become my barn family over the year, I am proud to say that this year, I have immediate family at the barn — I convinced my brother, a first-year Engineering student at Alfred University, to try out for the team. Kolby doesn’t ride much at home, but my nagging won him over and, after one week of preseason and a tryout ride, he made the varsity western team as a Beginner. I suspect that I will be much more nervous when he’s in the ring than when I have to show myself. I am excited to spend my final IHSA season bookending the team with my little brother in Open and Walk Jog. Watch out for the Ruffner siblings this year, Zone 2 Region 1 Western teams!

My last first practice is still a few days away, but even though this is my eighth year of riding at Alfred (four years of IEA, four years of IHSA), I find myself oddly nervous for this season. Will I come back strong enough to make my coaches proud of all the work they’ve put into developing me as a rider over the years? Will I be able to make a name for myself in the horse industry without my school, teammates, and coaches to support me? After graduation, will I have a career that reflects the level of care and thorough, expert instruction I’ve received both academically and at the barn?

My senior year of collegiate riding is the end of an era for me, the end of riding on a close-knit team forever, the end of college-sponsored lessons and shows. This moment on the cusp of endings and new beginnings makes me look to the future, trying to balance all the things I’ve learned with all the experience I stand to gain this year and beyond.

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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