The Academic Equestrian: There’s No Place Like Home

“Coming home is humbling, moving from the comparative grandeur of a large, heated arena to a little old cow barn held together with generations of odds and ends, filled with well-loved but not necessarily high-priced or fancy-bred horses.”

Photo by Haley Ruffner

Every time I get to come home for the weekend, pulling into the driveway of my family farm is comforting, a release of tension I didn’t know I was holding. As much as I appreciate the heated barn and indoor facilities at school, there’s something about mucking the same stalls my family has been mucking for three generations, trail riding to the top of a hill I can see four relatives’ houses from, and settling in at night under beams installed by great-great-great grandparents.

Our barn used to be an old cow barn, and later housed the show horses and draft horses my grandfather raised and worked the farm with. When we moved horses back into the barn after it stood empty for several decades, my family all stepped in to help replace rotten boards and re-frame stalls. We dusted the tack room, uncovering photographs of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles riding and driving different horses whose names they still remembered.

These pictures still hang in the tack room, a daily reminder of whose footsteps I walk in every time I work a horse in our arena. On trail rides, I wonder if my aunts and uncles raced along the same paths I do, if they got lost in the same places, if they followed dead-end trails to oil rigs, if their horses spooked at the same half-rotted sheds buried in the trees. Sometimes, I convince one of them to ride with me or take me out on a four-wheeler to show me the old trails, the shortcuts, and the places with bad footing or confusing turn-offs.

Most of my tack and other pieces of equipment are relics of my family’s show careers, pieces that were made to last—a bridle I use on Slide, more reins and leather scraps than I’ll ever find a use for, a pile of mismatched spurs the barn kitten loves to play with, metal pitchforks and shovels that were made long before I was born and will outlive me. We are always finding other long-lost things—a horseshoe buried in the garden, pieces of farm equipment on the hill, stall signs hidden in the feed room from my mom’s favorite horse. As with any working farm, there are constant improvements to make, things to fix, and adjustments to be made, but there’s a certain comfort in the knowledge that my family built and maintained this place, that my parents and (eventually) myself are just the next generation of caretakers responsible for it.

Coming home is humbling, moving from the comparative grandeur of a large, heated arena to a little old cow barn held together with generations of odds and ends, filled with well-loved but not necessarily high-priced or fancy-bred horses. I am lucky enough to have a small indoor at home, as well as access to acres of hay fields (after the hay is cut) and miles of trails, but, training and riding in a smaller area or subject to the weather poses its own set of challenges. Slide, my two-year-old gelding, found his balance much more easily in Alfred’s arena than he did loping through the flat parts of our field or working in circles in my small arena. Even under cover with some insulation, there are times when the temperature is too high or low to work a horse. Our wash stall is a hose in the driveway (where, if my mom’s not home, I can let my horse graze in the lawn to keep him distracted).

Despite the advantages of riding in a larger facility, returning home to the farm laden with so much history will never lose its charm. I can hear the horses call for their morning feed from my bedroom window, park my car in front of a sign that reads “Horse Drawn Vehicles Only,” and ride bareback through the snow where once my grandparents rode in a horse-drawn sleigh at Christmastime. I can appreciate as much as anyone the conveniences of a commercial barn, but my family farm will always hold a certain magic for me.

Photo by Haley Ruffner

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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