The Academic Equestrian: The Proverbial Blinders
“In the horse industry, it’s hard not to feel like you’re behind.”
There are few feelings as satisfying as something going right in riding that you didn’t know you were capable of. Each new skill loses its thrill after a while, when doing it well becomes routine, but in the beginning that brief second of euphoria is worth the weeks, months, or even years it took to get there. These are the moments I remember most in riding, even though they most often happen in an empty arena with no ribbon, no applause, no glory—just you and your horse.
In the horse industry, it’s hard not to feel like you’re behind. There’s always someone better than you, always someone who has more talent, more time to ride, more money to invest in training and horses. Social media provides countless videos and articles showing a horse the same age as yours that looks miles ahead of where you’re at. If you have a young horse, you’re asked, “When will he be ready to show?” and long for the day when you can give a definitive answer.
The pressure to do things fast over doing them right is, I think, one that has always influenced the increasingly-fast pace nature of the horse business. Everyone seeks the best and newest training methods, breeding lines, even supplements, to make their horses well-oiled machines. For riders who lack the resources to keep up with all of the newfangled technology and training, it can feel as though you are behind, or that you’re doing something wrong because your three-year-old isn’t ready to win the next horse show.
This year, I’ve challenged myself to keep my proverbial blinders on and focus only on improving me. I want to learn from others’ methods and come to my own educated conclusions on what’s best for my horse with input from people I trust, not try to compare my journey with Facebook videos that show brief clips that look flawless. I strive to ride the horse I have and make us both better, not try to push myself or my horse to the point where we don’t enjoy our rides.
My three-year-old Quarter Horse, Slide, is the first horse I’ve started from the beginning. My coach Harry Hurd has helped me with every step of the process from halter-breaking to reining training, and last week Slide got his first set of sliding plates on his back feet. The picture attached is from his third ride with the plates on, from a slow stop—I haven’t yet asked him for anything bigger. Each milestone with Slide feels like an incredible stroke of luck that has more to do with his good-naturedness and desire to please than anything I’ve taught him.
This photo, taken by my friend Emma VanDyne, is worth more to me than any ribbon I’ve ever won. I hope I always remember the feeling of the first time I felt Slide get into the ground and stop like a reiner, and I hope that I never stop appreciating every time he tries something new for me. It doesn’t matter to me if I never make it to a show with him (although showing eventually is my current plan), the moments when I feel him start to “get it” make even the worst days feel rewarding. I am humbled every time he nails a lead change or crosses over in a turnaround—I am reminded that I’m sitting on a three-year-old animal that doesn’t speak my language, lets me strap pieces of leather around him and wrap his legs, and has somehow understood what I’m trying to ask him (and does it happily at that). I hope that these little moments never lose their wonder and are never overshadowed by a high score or a trophy—I hope to never forget or stop valuing where it all started.
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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