BY JESS CLAWSON
In most professional sports, the way from high school to college to the pros is clear. It’s a rare phenomenon to skip a step. But in equestrian sports, there isn’t a standard path at all. Riders with big dreams have to figure it out, and hope for a lot of luck along the way.
Sloan Elmassian, a 21 year old barn manager for Oceancrest Farms in California, has opened doors that were once walls on her way to balancing showing in the Grand Prix ring, working full time, and being a full time college student.
“When I was three, my mom put me on a pony ride at a street fair and I never got off,” Sloan laughed. When she was nine, she got her first pony, Pablo. “He was perfect. He threw me two or three times every lesson. I credit a lot of my riding skill, grit and resilience to him.”
Sloan skipped most of the hunter and equitation direction that her peers followed, and rode her first “big girl horse,” Jesse James, in the jumpers instead. Jesse James topped out in scope at 1.10m, so eventually she needed to find the next horse, who turned up as if by magic.
“I was at a show looking at horses, and saw this horse, Colin, standing outside the equitation ring. I made a beeline to him and asked to get on. We trotted one lap to the left and did the vet check that day and brought him home the next,” Sloan explained.
Colin had been an equitation horse when Sloan bought him as a seven year old, expecting him to be the horse to get her through the 1.20m before she went on to look for a horse with big time jumper potential. She could not have known that he would turn into her first Grand Prix horse.
“There’s something special about his desire, drive, fight, will to please. He’s impressed me, and I’m honored to have him as a partner. Every time we step in the ring, he knows what his job is. He never lets me down,” she said of the handsome Dutch warmblood.
“Something that’s cool about our relationship is that we’ve had all of our firsts together, from the 1.10 to Grand Prix. I think it was a bit challenging when everyone was telling me one thing about my horse, that he couldn’t do it, he was only meant to go up to a certain height, but you know deep down he just needs time. That was a bit challenging for me to mentally overcome. Everyone told me he couldn’t, when I knew he could.”
Sloan has a knack for figuring out what horses need and riding them in a way that brings out their best. Colin expresses himself clearly, which in many ways makes her job as a rider easier. And their success is already evident with Grand Prix wins at Temecula and Thermal under their belts.
While Sloan competes in the Grand Prix ring with a horse who wasn’t supposed to do it, she is also a full time college student at the University of San Diego. There she has had to find new ways to make her dreams work for her.
“I was having trouble getting into classes I needed because I didn’t have a special enrollment status like the athletes have,” she explained. “So I started working to get the school to understand that I am a student athlete, even though I don’t compete for the school.”
After facing one closed door after the next, the vice provost eventually told her that if she could get a letter from her sport’s governing body saying she was training to represent her country the school would give her athlete status.
So, Sloan turned to USEF and DiAnn Langer, who she knew was invested in developing pathways to success in the sport. Together, they procured a letter from USEF to the university that satisfied the school’s requirements. The university changed their policy “in an unprecedented decision” to allow this sort of accommodation for any student athlete to get priority registration.
“It’s not because I was competing at the Grand Prix level—my competition level never came up,” Sloan said. “USEF stands behind their athletes, and I believe they would do this for any full time college student who’s also a member in good standing.”
There is no doubt that Sloan works at least as hard as any other college athlete. She takes a full course load, and then drives 40 minutes each way to Rancho Santa Fe where she works a full day. She often doesn’t return home to start her homework until 10pm. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she emphasized.
Sloan values higher education, and did not want to sacrifice her drive to learn or her equestrian career. She saw no reason why she’d have to make the choice. Growing up busy with activities every night of the week, Sloan already had a handle on how to juggle various commitments while keeping her grades up. Through this intense schedule, she wants to serve as a role model for younger kids who are passionate about their horses and about getting a higher education. Show them that it is possible to be an athlete and an excellent student.
“If there’s something you’re passionate about, you have to fight for it. And you don’t have to choose when you can excel at both,” she said.
Sloan wants younger riders to know that they don’t have to mimic another person’s journey in order to find success. “We come from 100 different directions; it’s a matter of time and dedication. Everyone can reach their goals by going their own way,” she explained. “Everything worth having is going to be hard work, but you don’t have to copy anyone—just learn from everyone.”
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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