The hardest thing about being a working student isn’t the chores, mucking stalls, holding horses for the vet, or night check. The hardest part is more related to the “student” aspect rather than the “working” part, or at least it was for me.
After growing up as a barn rat who appreciated being given a pitchfork rather than sitting around bored, I was prepared for how much hard work went into working in a barn. At school, I often helped the barn manager with various chores around the farm where she was responsible for about 80 horses and hundreds of acres. I didn’t envy her job but mentally prepared myself for something similar when I embarked on my working student search.
I was very lucky with my schedule at Spring Ledge  as a working student for Sloane Coles. We started at a manageable 7 a.m., and my chores were well balanced with a lot of time spent in the saddle. I usually rode about five horses a day, depending on the day and whether or not there were any lessons in the afternoon. Between Amelia, Sloane’s assistant trainer and rider, and me, chores (such as turning out, tack cleaning, feeding and haying, and blanketing) went by quickly and easily.
But what never came as easily to me as hard work was listening and being receptive to criticism. I know this about myself and have spent the past few years at school working on it. You only hurt yourself when you get frustrated with someone who is genuinely trying to help and teach you, and I spent time in college learning that before I could learn to improve my riding.
I was the kid who always thought she knew everything, and I know I shot myself in the foot on multiple occasions dismissing something out of hand, thinking I already knew it or knew another, better way. In riding, this is an especially dangerous train of thought because you are working with live animals. In school it might be true in that as long as I knew one method for factoring equations, I didn’t need another, but working with horses you need as many different approaches as possible. So, I was glad to be (mostly) rid of this attitude and promised myself that I would dive into my working student endeavor and try to absorb everything I could.
While soaking up any new method or technique I saw Amelia and Sloane use with the younger horses, I found myself fighting a new type of frustration. Instead of dismissing things I thought I already knew, I became frustrated with myself for getting caught not implementing things I really did already know.
With Sloane in France training at the Gucci Masters and Amelia horse shopping overseas as well, I was left to school the ponies under the watchful eye of Sloane’s mother, Julie. Unconsciously backing off my leg on a more forward mount, I was told I needed more leg, not less, to make everything smoother. “Everything needs to come from your leg!”
Those were almost the exact words I had heard from my trainer at school for the past four years. Her mantras consisted of “lift with leg” and “carry him in your leg” and really any variation of using leg for everything whether it was an extended trot or a downward transition.
I know that everything starts in the leg and that I needed it to support a deeper distance just as much as I needed it to even out a longer one. I know having a horse in front of your leg is key, and yet I was finding myself not riding up to the level of technicality that I was capable of. I wanted to blurt out “I swear I know this!” but recognized that knowing what I should be doing and not executing it was worse than just plain ignorance.
I can be hard on myself. I expect myself to do everything perfectly the first try and I rarely (OK, never) do. I obsess over the one distance that was a little off, which of course ruins the rest of the course. Instead of carrying one rhythm, I panic a few strides out and make a late, desperate move. I approach everything with this single-minded intensity that sometimes causes me to miss the big picture.
As Julie said, “Try a little less. Just do a little less. I know it’s your personality, but don’t spot-ride each fence. Focus on your pace and getting straight.” It sounds so simple and reiterates things I already know, but if I’m not doing it, then clearly I need that reiteration.
I used to think it was good to put that pressure on myself, as it would make me improve faster, but instead I’ve realized it just makes me panic that I’m going to make a mistake—which in turn ensures I make the very mistake I’m trying to avoid. Going forward, I’m going to try to remember one of the most reassuring things Julie told me: “You’re not learning as much when you’re doing it perfectly. You learn more from the wrong one than you do from the right one.”
This thought allowed me to take a deep breath and ride technically—leg on, one consistent pace, soft hands and straight to every fence. Completely unsurprisingly this resulted in the smooth, flowing course I had been trying so hard to achieve.
I am so appreciative for the time I got to spend at Spring Ledge and hope to return sometime in the future. But with Sloane and Amelia off to Florida, it was time for me to find my own ticket to Wellington.
With Sloane’s help, I was lucky to be able to find a working student position with Val Renihan of Findlay’s Ridge for the duration of the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival. It will be my first time ever in Wellington, barring a quick trip to gawk at the horsey heaven when I was 12. I am very excited to begin, and while I know the days will be long and hard, I am eager to learn as much as I can.
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.