Heels Down, Heart Up

May 6, 2014 - 11:34 AM

Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

The opportunities presented to me as a working student always looked like work and often wore breeches, dust, slobber and no small amount of manure. I have enjoyed my time in Florida as a working student for Val Renihan immensely but cannot wait to have more than one morning in a row where I don’t have to set an alarm.

My schedule as a working student really varied from day to day. Tuesdays tended to be lighter days where we started at 8 and finished at 4. Notice that in the horse industry a “light” day is the equivalent of a standard eight-hour workday, except without the hour break in between.

If we didn’t have any horses showing on Wednesday or Thursday then all three days look fairly similar. However that is a rarity, and usually we had at least one or two that did some of the high performance hunter classes early in the week. If we had a horse showing then, that start time jumped back two hours, and I would roll out of bed at about 5 a.m. to get to the barn at 6. Weekends can be even earlier.

If we had a lot of horses that need to hack in the ring before the show day begins, we might start as early as 5. I’ve had mornings where I’ve ridden two or three horses before there has been any hint of the sun coming up.

The days are certainly long. If we begin at 5 a.m., we might not be done until 6 or 7 p.m. Twelve-hour workdays were pretty standard if we have horses showing. We might need to get on a horse at 6 in the morning to get it in the ring before the show starts, only to not have it actually start showing until 5 in the evening. My first week working I was so exhausted that I got home at 6, took a nap, and didn’t wake up until my alarm went off at 5 the next morning. Since then I have gotten used to the schedule, and I know there are many other barns that start earlier and work later.

It is not only the hours that made it a long day, but the sheer physical toll the days took. I might have anywhere from two to six horses to ride, and that didn’t include the amount of horses we had to ferry to and from the show grounds in any one day.

It always felt like a lesson in logistics to coordinate getting the horses to and from the show with people who can ride them but not leave a golf cart or dirt bike stranded on either end. Add in running tack and equipment from ring to ring, hauling hay bales and shavings, setting jumps and courses, grooming, bathing, and pretty much any miscellaneous equine-geared task you can think of, and all you want at the end of the day is take a cool shower and go to bed.

Half the time you end up so caked in dirt and dust that you think you got a little tanner only to have it all wash away in the shower. The “nitty gritty” of being a working student is quite literally being covered in grit.

Yet there have been big and small moments that have made it all completely worth it. I got to show in the grand hunter arena, the ring that provided me my first glimpse of WEF about 10 years ago when I came as a gawking, horse-crazed little girl. I was able to watch George Morris give a lesson, see him ride, and meet him at the conclusion of the lesson.

I was able to watch one of Val’s students, Kate Ross, lay down the trip of her life on her junior hunter and derby mount, Friday Night. With a pair of 90s in the handy round of the only international derby at WEF, she stood tied for first against a hugely competitive field of top hunter riders.

After spending years following coverage of top equestrian events, it was slightly surreal to have Kate hand me Dillon’s reins after the derby so I could ride him back to the farm. While these have been the biggest moments of circuit, there are constant little things that make me stop and appreciate where I am.

I won’t forget walking to the show in the early morning with the bridle path illuminated only by moonlight, or the way the rising sun reflected over the canals on our way back. I won’t forget the feeling of being in a town where everything was centered around horses. From traffic crossing buttons set specifically at horseback-height, to a line in McDonalds comprised entirely of people in breeches and tall boots, Wellington felt like one of the few places where you could go pretty much anywhere without changing after the barn.  

I would be lying if I said there weren’t times when I felt discouraged. While Wellington was amazing in that it was one of the first times where I have been surrounded by upcoming professionals my age, there was a downside.

It becomes difficult to stay positive when you spend every day around people who have the same goals as you but are more talented and better funded. I know I am trying to get somewhere in a sport that is not often kind to those who cannot back themselves financially, as many of my family members seem quick to point out.

In fact, it has been the people in the industry who have never brought up that fact to me; it seems like it is already tacitly acknowledged that what I want to do will be very hard for someone who can’t afford their own mount, let alone pay upkeep and show expenses on top of it. But I’ve not once had someone in the industry tell me I shouldn’t try or explain how unrealistic it is, something for which I am very grateful.

I know my goals of once again competing in the jumpers and working with sale horses are far off, but it is something I am willing to concentrate all my effort on for now. I have a back-up plan for my future, but while I’m young I’m going to do everything in my power to achieve my goals. And so far, I think I’ve done a pretty good job.

When I was 14, I watched a show on Animal Planet called “Horsepower: Road to the Maclay.” I was just starting my first year in the 3-foot on a very special Thoroughbred and the slick equitation riders mounted on their sleek warmbloods seemed like a whole different world to me.

Fast forward nine years later: I was looking for a working student position. I read an article in the Chronicle about Sloane Coles starting her own business and recognized the name from Horsepower. Her mention of working with Thoroughbreds caught my eye, and on a whim I sent her my résumé. That whim resulted in a month and a half working for her in Virginia, three months working for Val in Florida, and now I am back in Virginia as the barn manager at Sloane’s Spring Ledge.

If you had told my 14-year-old self that I would be working for and riding with one of those slick equitation riders 10 years later, I would have laughed at you. So with that in mind, I’ll just keep striving and reaching, and we’ll see where that gets me.

As Sloane’s old trainer Johnny Barker said after a show day with mixed results: “Heels down, heart up.”

Ryan Lefkowitz grew up riding in Westchester County, N.Y. where she discovered her love of the jumper ring. She graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 2013 as an English major. While riding on the Geneseo Equestrian Team she bought and successfully resold her first project horse, a chestnut OTTB named Roheryn. She is thrilled to be able to combine her love of riding and writing by blogging for the Chronicle. She has written about her experiences involved in the IHSA and is currently blogging about life as a working student. Ryan is also one of the winners of the Chronicle’s first writing competition.

Read all of Ryan’s blogs.


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