BY TAYLOR MCRAE
Collegiate riding offers the opportunity to learn lessons that lectures and labs can never hope to impart. The experience of riding in university is unparalleled, and I am so thankful to have had the opportunity.
I’ve learned in my collegiate riding career that ribbons will eventually be put away and forgotten about, and that’s okay. What will remain is the memories and friendships made. While IHSA Regionals, Zones, and Nationals; as well as OCEA Finals have been cancelled, and what was supposed to be the swan song of many a collegiate career has been whisked away amidst the concerns of COVID-19, none of this diminishes the great times we’ve had or the life lessons we’ve learned.
I will always remember how it felt when I first learned that I had made my school’s team. I still remember my try-out, even though it was four years ago. The learning began right away. I rode two horses that day—Tiago (who will forever be a team favourite) and Grandi. Despite having never ridden these horses before, we were expected to demonstrate the basics of what could be asked at a show – no stirrups, sitting trot, and jumping a small course, all the while being judged by the team’s head coach and executive members. We were told that not only was how we rode important, but a good attitude was as well.
Tryouts are where riding suddenly became a team sport. The foundations of what it takes to be a team player: a good attitude, work ethic, and desire to learn were just as important as riding skills.
When I started showing with the team just one month into the school year I was still very scared. To attend university I moved 600km away from my family, and barely knew anyone. Despite that, I was going to trust these relative strangers to travel around the province with and ride horses that we barely knew.
Getting on for the first time at a show was a strange sensation. I barely knew the horse’s name, let alone how it went. To many, the idea of all of this sounds crazy, but from doing it I learned perseverance. I grew to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and learned how to lean into things even when they got a little scary. I also learned to connect with my teammates and get help from then if I was struggling – either inside or outside of the ring. Now as a result of doing that I have team dinners, sleepovers, show set ups, horse handling, workouts, team events, and everything in between to look back on.
In Canada, the structure of collegiate riding and its recognition by schools is very different than in the US. There is very little funding for it, and many universities and colleges do not recognize teams as athletics teams. As a result, students are typically paying out of pocket to continue with the sport. This means that the ability to lesson/practice is limited. While some schools are able to practice upwards of 3x a week in the US, we practice only once on horseback each week. We try to supplement this with dryland training, working in our school’s high-performance centre twice a week to maintain and build our strength and stamina.
What this does is make every second that we do have on horseback all the more valuable. This leads to learning an exceptional amount of discipline. To make the most of each time we get to ride we have to be focused on what our coaches are telling us. This translates well into the real world especially in times of social distancing. For those who have never worked from home previously but are now enrolled in online classes, or have set up in a home office this self-discipline will have to be channeled to stay on top of everything.
Collegiate catch riding teaches humility. One show you might be in the top of the ribbons, and the next you might walk away with no prize at all. Sometimes you’ll draw a large pony and sometimes you’ll draw a 17hh ex-equitation mount. You have to be flexible, be open to learning from any horse, and make the best of what you’re dealt.
This past year during a flat class the horse I was riding decided he wasn’t having it anymore, after having been asked to canter in a group he decided it would be more fun to have a romping fit. The class was promptly called to a halt, we walked one lap and I was pulled from the ring. I was then told to dismount from him as he was excused, remount onto a new horse, and head back in to finish the class. The flat started again from the point we had stopped and we carried on as if nothing had happened.
Things happen, and it’s okay. You learn from each horse you ride. You learn to be prepared for anything, and you get really good at dealing with curve balls. Things today are changing rapidly day to day as the virus spreads. With each new day there is a new normal, but from collegiate catch riding I’ve learned to be flexible. I’ll deal with things as they come my way.
In four years of collegiate catch riding, I’ve had a place to grow with support. Support from friends, family, teammates, coaches, and other competitors. I have seen riders go from being nearly overcome by nerves to walking confidently into the ring with the biggest smile on their face. Riders become more confident both in their individual lives and in their riding. We have the opportunity to learn from the horses we have the chance to ride, and the people we connect with.
From riding with my team I’ve learned the difference a good attitude can make; the value of perseverance and self-discipline; and how important it is to stay flexible especially in the face of new challenges. These are lessons that I would not have been able to learn in the classroom, and I am very thankful to collegiate catch riding for giving me the space to learn them.
Taylor McRae will graduate Magna Cum Laude from the University of Ottawa Spring 2020 and begin her MA in Political Science in Fall 2020. She has been both a member and Captain of the University of Ottawa Equestrian team during her undergraduate degree and now serves as the Ontario Collegiate Equestrian Association President.