The Academic Equestrian: On Riding In College

The virtues of being an equestrian student.

Photo by Steve Shank

When we think of combining horses and school, the negatives usually come to mind first: the days of class missed for horse shows, rushing through homework assignments to make it to lessons on time, and prioritizing one over the other because there’s never enough time to be a “perfect” student and equestrian simultaneously. As I work towards the end of my undergraduate career, having attended college full-time and ridden on Alfred University’s equestrian teams, I’ve been reflecting on the ways that riding has made me a better student despite the challenges of finding time for both horses and academics.

1. Going to work or class at 8 AM isn’t an issue when we’re used to 6:30 AM practice and even earlier wake-up calls on horse show days. Chances are, we’ve already been to the barn, ridden a horse, and had breakfast by the time our classmates are dragging themselves out of bed for an 8 AM class. We learn to deal with early mornings and late nights, a staple of both college and the horse industry.

2. We learn time management skills out of necessity. We have to account for more than just a scheduled hour-long practice — travel time to the barn and back to campus, cooling out horses, tack cleaning, stall cleaning, and any other circumstances that might pop up. Horses have the tendency to worm their way into an already-tight schedule, so equestrians learn early on to juggle different commitments to make it work.

3. We can prioritize and multitask. Ever sat on the bleachers at a horse show with homework spread out on your lap and around you while you watch warm-ups? Chances are, you have at some point. You’ve probably spent hours in the car en route to shows catching up on schoolwork. Most collegiate teams require riders to keep up a certain GPA in order to stay on the team, so the ability to multitask and keep our grades up is essential. For example, when Nationals and Finals week fall on the same week, sometimes we have to write final essays in the tack room at the horse show on a saddle.

4. We’re good at listening. This applies to both verbal and nonverbal communication—equestrians have to be able to listen to their coaches with utmost focus in order to apply their teaching and improve, while also listening to the horse’s nonverbal cues (body language, resistance or softness to aids, distractions). Although listening to a professor’s lecture might be less interesting, we have a lot of practice listening in various capacities that transfer over well to the classroom.

5. We always have something to write about. Whenever a professor gives us a writing assignment, we have a built-in back-up plan: write about horses. Spending time in the barn gives us an endless source of material to write about for nearly any personal writing prompt because horses are so pervasive in our daily lives.

6. We learn patience with ourselves and others. While it’s always easier to be patient with horses than with other people, we learn staying power at the barn, the ability to wait it out until we get something right without getting upset. This skill is harder to translate into the classroom, and especially when it comes to being patient with our own learning curves, practicing the same forgiveness we use with horses is a valuable skill in academia.

Missing school for horse shows is a given in the equestrian world, so we have to make up for our absence somehow skills that we develop in the barn. What other classroom skills have you improved on through working with horses?

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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