How Not Riding in College Made Me Appreciate My Equestrian Roots

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BY SYDNEY CHARLTON

Heels down, eyes up, shoulders back. I silently count to keep a steady rhythm, relying on both skill and good fortune to clear the eight demanding obstacles. The two minutes spent in the show ring provide a unique adrenaline rush — one that requires a temporary insanity. One missed distance, too tight turn, or flicker of doubt could prove wildly disastrous, ending with the rider exiting the ring on their own two feet covered in sand and with a bruised ego. 

It has been over three years since I strode into a show ring, but the memory of that feeling has never faded. 

When I first arrived at the University of Richmond in 2016, I did not want to let go of that feeling. I joined the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association at my school because I could not fathom the idea of not riding. However, I quickly found that IHSA was not for me. It didn’t give me the same rush. I missed my horse Cooper, my trainer, and my friends from Ramble On Farm in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. 

Photo courtesy of Sydney Charlton

Although I left my boots and helmet at home after freshman year, the friendships I made in the horse world have only grown stronger over these last three years. From daily chats and pictures in a Snapchat group to dinners at the Cheesecake Factory when our school breaks align, we never run out of things to talk about since we have so many shared experiences. 

Together during our junior careers, we traded our extravagant bows for polished hairnets, and simultaneously gave up parties and free time for late-night lessons and 4 a.m. horse show wake-up calls. We spent summer afternoons on trail rides around the property, weekends in hotel rooms across the East Coast at competitions, and cold, late nights schooling in the indoor ring after school hours. Despite these shared experiences, we all took drastically different paths after graduating high school. 

Photo courtesy of Sydney Charlton

My one friend fully invested in the equestrian world. She switched from public school to online school while in high school in order to travel to the most elite show circuits over winter, and ultimately decided to forego college since she could never imagine herself in a nine-to-five office job instead of riding. She discovered the different business routes the industry offered, such as buying and selling horses, and chose to turn this hobby into her career. 

Another fell in love with the University of Georgia’s program, team, and farm when she visited. She was drawn to the structure this kind of demanding National Collegiate Equestrian Association Division I program provided, and the different community service opportunities that came along with it.  

However, the rest of my junior friends no longer ride competitively. Our longstanding Snapchat group will light up on certain days, such as when we are all streaming Maclay Finals in our dormitory rooms or close to school breaks when we want to meet at the barn to relive our glory days. But a lot of the time, when I realize a full day has gone by and the chat has been silent, I know it’s because we’re busy pursuing other interests we’ve found at college. We’ve uncovered passions that give us that distinct feeling similar to stepping in the show ring, or winning a blue ribbon, or just petting our horses. 

Being an equestrian taught us to chase that same feeling in all of our endeavors. I found a familiar sense of excitement while studying abroad in Italy for a semester, traveling through Europe with my best friends. And then again last summer, interning in New York with some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. 

I imagine my friends are finding that same enthusiasm serving as orientation advisors, planning sorority socials, or staying out late singing karaoke with no alarms set for a horse show the next morning.

Photo courtesy of Sydney Charlton

Now, I am a senior at UR. I am a marketing major, a leader in my sorority, a halfway-decent cook, and a Pure Barre enthusiast. While I am a lot of things, I am no longer an equestrian. I went from the competitive junior hunter ring to a normal college dorm room, and discovered these different passions that flourished in my newfound free time. 

The thing is, whether or not my friends and I have continued riding after high school, we are all incredibly happy with our decisions. I do miss the equestrian world sometimes. Growing up, it was my second home. I hope to return to this familiar oasis when I am older. I’m thankful that someone from my barn purchased Cooper, so he’s still close by for me to visit. 

If, like me, you choose not to ride in college or as you begin your career, you should still be proud of your equestrian roots. Remember everything you learned from growing up at the horse show. 

Heels down, eyes up, shoulders back — the very fundamentals of riding — are words I take with me everywhere. To me, this mantra means to stand tall regardless of the outcome. This mentality has guided me through my college experience, from a failed economics exam freshman year to rejected job applications this fall. Riding teaches you dedication, responsibility, patience and so much more. These are traits that have benefited me in college, and I know will stay with me for the years to come. 

So even though I am not an equestrian right now, I will always be an equestrian at heart.


Sydney Charlton is a senior at the University of Richmond studying marketing and journalism. She is from Wayne, Pennsylvania, where she rode with Dominique Damico at Ramble On Farm. She competed in the junior hunters with her horse Beaucoup Blue, affectionately known as Cooper.

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