An Open Letter to the Collegiate Equestrians

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY NOA LEIBSON

To my fellow athletes,

I know, I know. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. We were supposed to have another hurrah. We were supposed to wake early in the morning again with racing hearts and crossed fingers that another competition would go the way we wanted. Instead, the season was cut short. Coronavirus has caused school after school to go online. IHSA cancelled the rest of the season. NCAA did the same.

For the duration of the year, collegiate equestrians have competed at competition after competition hoping to accumulate enough points to carry on to Nationals and give the best rides they could. So much has balanced on two minutes in an arena and the hope for first-place ribbons we could cradle and hang high in a cluttered dorm. Every year, my fellow collegiate equestrians have given it their all. They’ve bounded to riding lessons despite homework and stresses following in their shadows. They’ve shoved their heels down and kept their eyes ahead. They’ve hit the gym and charged ahead through mental and physical barriers. Saying riding at this level is ‘hard work’ doesn’t cut it. It’s hours and hours of devotion and exhaustion.

The hours were put in, points accumulated, and then it ended in a blink. So I want to tell you all, it’s okay to cry. 

Photo courtesy of Noa Leibson

For me and so many others are college seniors this year, this was our final season. One more fighting finish was what we had hoped, and expected, to give. When the ending was announced, I found myself numbly sitting on the edge of my bed. My riding boots sat in the corner. My mind raced from memory to memory. 

I thought riding on a collegiate team would just be a chance to be around horses during school. Instead I met people I now consider family, and found horses I call beloved. Until I went to Gettysburg College, I never really had a friend group or felt like I fit in. I was horribly shy and anxious, but collegiate riding changed that for me. 

I met IHSA teammates that became my best friends. Suddenly my voice grew louder, my smile wider, and I was able to give back to them as captain. I met my coach, Janis Groomes, and her daughter Katie, who molded the wild jumper rider in me into someone who could compete in the equitation. But more than that, my team believed in me. My fears in the saddle—and out of it—began to melt away. They opened the doors to so many opportunities for me. I found it hard before to recognize what good horse people were like. Now I know.

Photo courtesy of Noa Leibson

I know that many others who ride in college found the teammates they consider sisters and brothers. It’s funny, isn’t it? How collegiate riding ended up being so much more than just horses. We cried with our team, laughed with them. We struggled, fought, cheered, and grew. 

We grew, because it all seemed so irrational. Who wants to wake up at 4 am, drink poor coffee, get on a random horse, and show it without so much as a warm-up? Then remain there all day, drive for hours to get back home, and be up so late at night finishing school assignments. Between all of this, we would flee from our dorms at 1 am to be called for adventures, or trudge through the cold and rain midday to make it to the barn. Somewhere along the way, we began to love these things. Somewhere along the way, this irrational chaos became our lives.

Photo courtesy of Noa Leibson

I can’t sit here and write that it’s okay, and that there will be other opportunities. Without college riding, myself and many others are without solid ways to ride. For some of us, the seniors, we don’t know when we can next see our teammates or coaches to even say goodbye. So, all of your tears, all of your thoughts, are valid. 

Your tears are a testament to the horses and people who have held you up. My tears ensured I would find a way to return for the IHSA alumni division. Your tears, I know, will put more fight in you. Above all, we need to be the people collegiate riding shaped us as.

Whatever comes next, I believe in you. Everyone else does, too.

Noa Leibson

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