“Go to school now, and get your degree out of the way. Horses will always be there” is the ideology most trainers tout to their high school senior level students who have equestrian ambitions.
Except mine. My red cheeked German trainer was offended when I suggested going to college two hours away.
Of the schools I was accepted to, the in-state, albeit distant, option not only had the lowest tuition but offered me the heftiest scholarship. It wasn’t a choice, really. Of the many firm, disappointed conversations that followed “you aren’t committed to riding” was the common theme.
“If you don’t go to school I’ll offer you $200 a week to work here,” he said.
Deep canyons had long settled into his face from sun exposure, and a lit cigarette sat between his teeth, staving his hunger for anything but his black hazelnut coffee that had gone cold while we talked. I thought about it for a moment, in the dusty attic apartment that doubled as our stable lounge. His piercing blue eyes watched for any reaction that might give away which direction I was leaning.
It didn’t sound like much, $200 a week. At the same time, he had never before offered me a dime to do anything, and I had been “working” there since I was 16-years old.
As my first “real” trainer, I was conditioned to crave his approval, and I felt conflicted. There were two things I’d always been taught to prioritize: school and sport. College was the first time I had to choose between the two.
I understood, too, his hesitation to cut the cord. College is the time you often lose riders to parties, boys, and eventual work opportunities, among other things.
No matter how good you think you are at riding, a fallback, at some point, is often essential to survival. I had to lay out the facts. My USEF resume was short. I started jumping late and my top horse was an off the track Thoroughbred that came off an auction truck. She was incredible for what she was, but maxed out at 1.15m. As much as I dreamed of launching a successful career as a professional show jumper, the reality was I didn’t have my bearings in the horse industry yet. I had no idea there were professional grooms even.
So, I signed the UMass Amherst dotted line, and promised my trainer that I would come back every weekend to ride. I also arranged my class schedule so that I had Wednesdays free, so I could still ride four days a week at my home stable. I’d drive two-hours back on Tuesday, work all day Wednesday, and head back to school Thursday morning. Then do it all over again Friday through Sunday.
At first, driving back and forth twice a week was manageable. I was motivated. I felt like a serious athlete and I liked it. We have all heard crazy stories about figure skaters and gymnasts training at 5 am everyday before school. To me it didn’t feel any different—even if they were training for the Olympics and I was just hoping to finish the course on the local rated circuit.
When the winter months hit, the drive got more difficult. Northeast snowstorms plus winding roads and a rickety old car made for a stressful two hours on the road. Mornings have never been my cup of tea, or rather double espresso latte, either, so fighting grogginess at 5:30 am to make an 8 am lecture often meant I was late or missed classes altogether.
Even with the four-day-riding-week schedule, my trainer frequently implied I was rusty in the tack by Friday. Before long I tried out for a spot on the varsity dressage team to keep in the saddle the other three days. There were only two first-level spots, the highest competitive collegiate level, and I got one as a freshman (and a show jumper by trade).
Everyone was proud of me. Except of course my German trainer. It wasn’t enough for him.
I’ll never forget sitting around the table at my barn Christmas party over the holiday, answering polite inquiries about my UMass experience. I had recently won my division at Mount Holyoke, an all-girls college with an excellent equestrian program.
“You actually, honestly, believe you’re learning something there?” he cut in, and the room fell silent with dropped smiles.
“I don’t know,” I said, trying my best not to burst into tears. (I am an easy crier, I admit, but that comment stung).
To be honest, I did think I was learning something, and I had fun socializing with the other girls on the team and learning to flat like a lady and not a cowgirl.
As you can imagine, our student-trainer relationship continued to degrade as the semester went on. I got more and more exhausted by the constant driving back and forth. He got more frustrated when things like midterms or finals pulled my time and attention.
It finally came to a head when my mom broke up with him. Did I forget to mention that? They dated for about three years, but I really became relationship napalm towards the end when I would get home and share whatever new insulting thing he said or did that day. According to him, they never fought about anything but me, and if you call staying the weekend at college for final exams delinquency, then guilty as charged. I leaned into it.
I stayed at the barn and rode a few weeks longer after their breakup, but he was increasingly annoyed by my presence. At the time, a routine blood test found I had very low iron. He exploded, telling me that I was riding so terribly he wouldn’t allow me to sit on his horses and that a compromised state wasn’t an excuse.
After countering with my most recent winning results (i.e. back talk), he stormed behind me shouting expletives with cherry tomato cheeks. I remember laughing. He had completely lost the plot, which of course only escalated the situation. Oh well!
He asked me to take my horse and leave—that day.
In the four years I trained there he had kicked out more riders than I could count, and for insignificant things. Meaning, I wasn’t all that surprised at the outcome. Honestly, it was kind of a relief when the ever-looming threat finally happened. I walked my mare up the road and called a generous friend with a little backyard stable, as I always imagined I would if the fury ever turned towards me.
“Enjoy being a groom” was one of the last things he said to me. At the time, I didn’t really understand what he meant by that, but it was clearly a dig.
My second semester at school ended a few weeks later. By then, I had grown angry.
Part of me just wanted to spite him. The other part acknowledged that I needed a working student job to continue paying for my mare, who was turning into a paddock ornament because the backyard barn had no arena. Maybe I also felt a little lost about declaring my major because I wasn’t sure yet.
So I scrolled for a few days on YardAndGroom, and called my only contact in the sport, a much older, retired German rider who owned a few of the horses I showed. Swallowing my pride I asked for a favor, and he obliged, finding me a job down south with a stall for my horse and a $100 a week salary.
Financially speaking, it was a backwards move. But for a multitude of reasons, I accepted it. My cursor only lingered for a few seconds as I clicked “unenroll” for the following fall semester.
Maybe it wasn’t the most strategic academic career move but I was excited as soon as the school pressure was off. It was a much more successful stable, both in business and sport, so in a way I felt like I’d “won.” My father was less convinced, but my mom was all about it. The benefit of divorced parents is you don’t often have both in the same ear. So, horses it was!
For the next two years I was a college dropout turned working student (and eventual rider groom) for an athlete I really admired.
Those tiny details I mentioned earlier did limit me, as suspected. Without much experience I didn’t show as much as I hoped, and my own horse started struggling with soundness. In the quiet moments mucking stalls, the writing bug snuck back in, and I felt torn once again. At that point I had learned a lot, gotten to ride in Holland and along the beach in Spain, met more riders, grooms, and potential connections than I could count. In that way, I knew I finally created a good foundation for myself, and that it was safe for me to leave and return later.
This time when the desire to go back to school resurfaced, I had a trainer who told me what I needed to hear:
“Finish school, we will always be here when you get back.”
College isn’t for everyone, and plenty of people in and out of the equestrian industry are successful without an expensive piece of paper. But it was part of my path, and as fate or persistence would have it I used it to start a career in writing…about horses.
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