The barn where I grew up riding had a clear line between two people: the boarders and the riding school people. In other words, money versus no money. And in the riding world, this line is all too real.
This line meant watching girls have the fanciest and best trained horses while you rode the ones that barely wanted to move or the ones that really wanted you off. It meant that they got the best of the best training multiple times a week and you were lucky that you got to ride even once a week. It meant that they got to go to horse shows all over the country and jump enormous jumps while you were stuck at your barn show maybe jumping 2’3″.
It also meant working long and hard hours to get an extra lesson or working summer camps in the hot sun for one more ride. It meant dreaming of owning even a green, don’t-care-what-it-looks-like, hopefully free horse someday that will probably have underlying issues while they got to ride the fanciest grand prix level horses.
But, in turn, it meant that I knew for sure I wasn’t going through a “phase.” If I was willing to work this hard for so much less pay off, then I really was passionate. And I earned everything I’ve gotten in this industry. And fellow horsemen noticed my hard work in the end.
There was one day in particular I will never forget. The day that proved to me that hard work really doesn’t go unnoticed in this equestrian world.
I was working a Sunday as a tacker, my usual shift. I worked every Sunday from 8am to 3pm in order to get a free lesson a week. It was freezing cold and the day had already wrapped up. I was numb in just about every part of my body but I knew that when lessons were over, the head trainer (the one that trained the boarder kids, not the riding school kids) would give his wife and sometimes fellow instructors a riding lesson.
So each week I would head over to the ring and wait for them to come in just so that I could watch. I sat off to the side and absorbed everything he would say, and when the lesson was done I would walk away quietly and go home.
I never thought I was ever noticed. Or that he realized it was the same crazy horse girl coming out every week. But on that cold and numbing day, he stopped mid-lesson and called me over.
I just about had a heart attack. He made me walk all the way into the ring with him and had me sit on one of the jumps. I thought I was in trouble for intruding on their lesson and he was about to yell at me…
Instead, he continued the lesson and every so often he would turn to me and ask “why do you think I just told her she needs more outside leg?” or “what approach to the jump would be a good one?” And I would give my best answer and hope I was right. I still had no idea why he was involving me so much.
When the lesson was done, I was about to walk away and never bother him again but he turned to me and said, “I know you’re the Sunday tacker and I asked about you. They told me you work all those hours just for one extra lesson and sometimes you come in during the week to help for free. I also noticed that after your work is done, you stay back and watch all of my lessons. Well, next week I want you to join. Because anyone this hungry for the sport deserves some perks.”
I was stunned. He told me it would be for free, that he worked it out with the riding school and I could pick out any horse I wanted, and that he would teach me every Sunday he was available.
I went home thinking I was dreaming. That there was no way that this guy actually noticed me and my thirst for horses.
But sure enough, the next week I went out there on my favorite horse (to which he laughed and said “I’m surprised she’s your favorite, but she would have been my pick too. Nice choice.” She was a bit umm…unpredictable at times). Not only did he give me a lesson, he gave me an intense one. He sat there and really taught me, unconcerned about the time he was investing in me.
I was so thankful that he was giving me this opportunity. He showed me that when horse people are real horse people, they help each other out. Just because you don’t have money doesn’t mean you can’t replace it with hard work in this sport.
Suddenly, that line between the boarders and the riding school didn’t matter to me anymore. I knew I’d find my way in this industry one way or another.
About the Author
Aryelle Stafford is a 24-year-old graduate student who events on her OTTB Reef. She currently runs her own blog, HorseHack.com, which contains posts about money saving tips in the horse world as well as relatable stories for all equestrians to enjoy!