The Academic Equestrian: The Barn Balance

Is the barn making too much work for Haley at college?

Photo by Haley Ruffner

As a member of Alfred University’s western, hunt seat, and dressage IHSA teams, my riding schedule (between practices and riding classes) includes eight rides each week on weekdays. I try to fit in time to ride my own horses in addition to this as I work on training my two-year-old and keeping my older horse in shape, which pushes my total rides up over ten most weeks. I get more bowlegged by the day. My classmates, professors, and teammates probably wouldn’t recognize me in street clothes by now, accustomed to my jeans-and-boots-just-came-from-practice look.

At this point in the semester, both the show season and my classes are buckling down for the long haul: we just finished midterms, and starting last weekend, we have a show every weekend back to back until Thanksgiving break. I’ve written before on the nuances of juggling two huge time commitments—college and riding—because I keep coming back to the question of why I subject myself to four 6:30 AM practices each week, why I add to the stress of a full class load by riding on both teams and ensuring I never have a free weekend. I rush through most of my homework in the truck on the way to shows, sitting in the office at the barn between practices, or late at night when I finally get home. Although I’ve found a balance in this and a schedule that works for me and is sustainable, sometimes I daydream about how much free time I would have if I didn’t have to do both, if I could choose either class or riding.

The most compelling reason I have for continuing to ride through college, even adding to those time commitments by bringing my own horse, signing up for the new Intercollegiate Dressage Association team, and working as the Teaching Assistant for two barn classes, is that I am the most grounded at the barn. Riding is the only real work I do that never feels like work, the only time learning comes naturally without me losing interest or getting bored. If I blocked it out by time spent, at least half of the work I do is horse-related in some way, but it feels like the least labor-intensive and least draining of any of my work. Pushing through a grueling no-stirrups practice or nailing a sliding stop after several failed attempts are satisfying in the same way handing in a paper I’ve spent weeks completing is, only riding is much less emotionally taxing than academic work.

In addition to a constant learning opportunity, riding is also my escape. I can lose myself in the physicality of a difficult lesson, sublimating any tension I carry to avoid transferring it to my horse. I can’t ride well if I’m distracted with some other issue, so I set it aside and, by the time I get off, it doesn’t seem like such a huge problem. Riding encourages me to be deliberate in every move I make, to have enough self-awareness to pay attention to each muscle group and cue, however small. There is a balance between brain and body, between knowing what to do and physically being able to do it, that doesn’t allow for me to wallow in what-ifs—there is only what needs to be done, and my attempt to do it, the spirit of which I try to carry over into my academics.

If I am too stressed to study effectively, taking forty-five minutes out of my day to drop everything and go on a trail ride works better for me than forcing myself to read the same page over and over again. Something about being in the presence of horses with their quiet understanding, patience, the way they mirror our emotions, lets me reset and reevaluate myself and leave the barn as a more productive and steady person than when I came.

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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