Lost in College – A Saddleseat Rider Uses (Hunter!) Horses to Find Her Way

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY CADY WAKITSCH

I never expected to continue riding horses after high school. I had been riding saddleseat since I was four, but I never owned or leased and didn’t get serious into competing. I figured once I moved away to college I would have to give up my very involved hobby. Maybe I’d go on trail rides every once and a while when I got out into the “real world.”

So it was a miracle that after a few days after being at Northern Illinois University, I stumbled upon an equestrian team meeting. Not many showed up—maybe thirty—and yet it was still bigger than I would have expected. The team explained that they competed at other colleges, and had lessons at a barn twenty minutes away. They even accepted “newbies” that hadn’t ridden before. I got the coach’s number and was excited I didn’t have to give up riding. 

It was one of the few positive things going for me as the first semester of my freshman year had been rough. I was severely depressed. Stressed from social changes and scholastic pressure, I lost twenty pounds—which meant I was barely breaking 100. I would cry while walking to and from class, and cry when I was alone in my single dorm room. 

Struggling through this, I didn’t really want to keep going to the equestrian meetings. I still hadn’t ridden, and I wasn’t showing. Yet I made myself go because that’s what’s supposed to help depressed people, right? You need to get involved. Make new friends. But after a month, going to the meetings hadn’t been the miracle cure. If anything, I felt worse. Nobody would care if you dropped out. Plenty of new people haven’t returned and no one’s reached out to them. It made me feel more lonely to be in a group of people feeling like none of them cared about me. But I stayed for the promise of horses, which was about to become a reality.

One of the team members drove me to the barn where there was a large group riding – half current team members, and half people riding with the coach for the first time like I was. I was nervous, as I was under the impression this would be a try-out for the team, but I at least had some experience—not everyone did. A pair of twins helped me gather tack and asked if I knew how to groom and tack up a horse. I confidently said I did, hoping to score some points. Instead, I was confused by having two sets of saddle pads, which I did a terrible job of throwing on. My saddle was too far back, and I thought it was super adorable that there was only one rein. Like with the tiny tots just starting, I thought. 

The president of the team managed to fix my saddle before the coach noticed, but I was already rattled. I managed to take two steps away from the mounting block when the coach barked, “Put your hands down!” And then it finally hit me… this is not what I think this is. This wasn’t saddleseat. It seems ridiculous that I wouldn’t have thought of that before considering hunt seat is the more popular style, but to me saddleseat was horseback riding. 

The next half an hour was crushing habits I had instilled into myself for almost fifteen years, “Don’t sit so far back in the saddle.” “Turn your toes out.” “Keep your hands down.” “Cluck, don’t kiss.”

Other new girls were jumping small courses around me while I struggled to canter. The horse I was riding was a lazier, western horse that was meant for beginners. I’ve always had abnormally lower energy compared to most people because of an autoimmune disease called Crohn’s (undiagnosed at this time), but now I was also underweight and hadn’t ridden in close to four months. Looking back, it also would have also helped me if I had known that to canter in hunt seat you used inside hand, not outside hand.

I started seeing spots in my vision and could barely sit myself up straight. I told the coach I was done and that I didn’t feel good. I practically toppled backwards when I dismounted. She had one of the other girls put away my horse while she fanned me in the aisles and demanded I drink water.

I sputtered out apologies in between pants. I was embarrassed someone had to take care of my barn chores. I was embarrassed I had to explain how physically pathetic I was on day one. Most of all, I was embarrassed that I quite obviously failed this audition. Fifteen years of experience and I couldn’t even keep a canter.

Already out of breath, I started sobbing. From the beginning, I said I didn’t want to be on the showing team. I was only interested in taking lessons, but I worried she wouldn’t even want me around to do that. The team president also stopped by to make sure I was okay. 

“Why are you crying? It’s okay,” the coach’s tough love commands had slipped away. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re on a new horse with a new coach. We’ll figure it out. We’ll keep ya,” she said with a smile. Turns out there were no “auditions” for the team as there were different showing classes for all levels. You only needed to be reliable with practices and helping out.

I waited in the tack room for the other girls to finish up chores, like sweeping and filling up water buckets. And then they pulled out their checkbooks. I froze. I hadn’t even remembered to bring my purse because I wasn’t driving. I didn’t even think about paying as my parents had paid for it growing up. Not only did I have a terrible lesson, I wasn’t even going to pay her for it. This was not the type of person I was. 

“I’m so, so sorry,” I explained. “I totally forgot my purse. That was so stupid. I promise I’ll pay you next time I see you.”

Coach shrugged. “That’s okay, I’m not worried about the girls like you. I know you’ll be back since you’re at all the meetings. Just give me a check then. Not a big deal.”

Although I still wasn’t sure why there were two saddle pads and one rein, I paid her at the next meeting and signed myself up for an entire new world of riding.


Cady Wakitsch graduated with a BA in English from Northern Illinois University in 2016. She currently works as a marketer for a software company.