Haley reflects on her last equestrian team banquet.
Every spring, the equestrian team hosts a banquet to have dinner together, distribute year-end awards, thank our coaches, and say good-bye to that year’s seniors. It’s always a bittersweet night, one last gathering with the entire team when the season has ended for everyone except national qualifiers. This year it was my turn to stand in the front of the room to receive a senior gift, and my turn to announce the new western captains. I had the honor of passing down the title of captain to two of my teammates who will put as much heart and passion into the role as I have the last three years, and who will make their own innovations and leadership styles.
This banquet also marked western head coach Harry Hurd’s retirement (although, historically, he’s had a hard time staying retired). Harry has been my coach — both in riding and in life — during my most formative years. He got me riding again after I lost my first horse to colic, taught me how to rein and work cows, and taught me more old cowboy tricks than I have any right to know, being neither old nor a cowboy. In true Harry spirit, we captains solicited his help to pull a prank on Steve, our other western coach, during the banquet.
What I am most grateful for during my time on this team is the spirit of fun they imbue into riding. Practicing three times per week on the same horses has the potential to become monotonous, but under Steve and Harry I have always looked forward to practices as the highlight of my day. They molded me into a competitive horsemanship and reining rider with, as Steve calls it, “ice in my veins” in the show pen, but they made sure that, no matter how competitive I got, I always had the mental space to step back and laugh at myself. The mental toughness riding requires is nearly impossible to teach, and yet Steve and Harry teach it every day.
The barn has been my happy place, my relief from the stressors of college life, for the past four years. In my teammates, I have a group of friends that always understands what I’m going through because they’re going through the same things. The horses at the barn have always offered a neck to hug or a challenging ride to clear my head. Although I am lucky enough to have horses of my own at home, I will miss every one of them next year and remember their kindness to me. They all taught me something, and I hope that I can carry their lessons with me always — they kept me humble when I needed taking down a notch, and they built me back up when I had no confidence.
Standing in front of the podium at my last IHSA banquet made everything feel final — I graduate in less than a month. Nationals in Syracuse will be the last time I ride for Alfred University, the last time my name will appear on the show roster. Whatever comes next, I’m ready for it, armed with a confidence built during 6:30 AM practices and the ability to find something to laugh about even during the longest days. Thank you to everyone who made Alfred feel like home, and thank you especially to my coaches past and present. I couldn’t have done it without you.
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.