If I had a dollar for every time some big equestrian magazine or online resource wrote an article on overcoming adversity and the struggles of riding whilst in university but based it on someone who has all of their tuition and equine expenses paid for, perhaps I could afford to pay my tuition without loans. You see, the prevalence of selecting extraordinarily privileged role models to be set on the pedestal of accomplishing the impossible by managing university on top of worldwide travel to show the rated circuit is incredibly disheartening for, you know, normal people. The writers behind such articles are trying to be inspiring, in their defence, but they miss the boat by choosing riders who have an amount of privilege that is unimaginable for the average university student, let alone the average equestrian in university. To be frank, as someone who pays for my own tuition and all of my own show fees, I could easily find the time to show frequently along with attending school if the stress of finances and finding time to work in order to afford said expenses was taken away. In fact, that would be an absolute dream. Something that I cannot even fathom, having tens of thousands of dollars suddenly materialize and clear out my student debt. It would be living the dream.
These articles applaud students who, yes, are absolutely working hard and must have to have planned out schedules in order to get everything done BUT these students are having so much financial help along with help in way of grooms at shows as well as full training… This means that if they can’t make it out to the barn one day due to needing to write a term paper, someone is there to pick up the slack and get their show horse worked. This means that if they need to leave a show early in order to get to class on time, someone is there to care for their horse. These same people also generally have fairly accomplished show horses and are not trying to juggle breaking horses or keeping green broke horses in a consistent program so they are showable. They do not generally understand the struggle of having to juggle class, homework, barn chores, riding AND a job to pay for it all.
The most admirable people often get the least recognition, simply because most of them cannot amass the funds to show at prestigious shows and create a lengthy show career all in the same year of accomplishing a full course load but realistically, these people are the true heroes when it comes to time management and allowing themselves the full university experience, good grades and still somehow managing to afford the time and money to ride and show. I’ve yet to see a legitimate article on one of these largely self made people, the true weekend warriors who drag themselves out to shows after a long week of classes and with papers to be written and shifts to be worked. The equestrian world seems to have an obsession with promoting the top 1%, as though they are the true reality of the horse world. Most of us can’t afford to show every weekend and up and leave our classes at Harvard to climb into the first class section of a plane and fly out to ride our million dollar horse over large fences without having to worry about the sheer expense of it.
Most of us have jobs. Most of us are struggling with mental health issues or extreme stress because of how hard it is to get everything done. Most of us look at the receipt from our university semester and feel physically ill and honestly, sad, knowing how far that money could go in getting us out to shows if we didn’t have to pay for shows. Most of us are applying for as many scholarships as we can, trying to cover as much of our tuition as we possibly can. Most of us can’t simply go to our parents and ask for several thousand dollars to show or pay for school. That isn’t the norm.
So, here is a request for more online resources and big equestrian news sources to showcase the realities. Talk about the riders who have somehow made it to the upper levels on their own dime, while paying for school on their own or going through university via student loans. Tell us about the riders like us, who are working full time along with riding and showing in order to make it all possible. Who do not have the luxury of receiving significant help from family members or otherwise. Tell us about the people who have to cope with the same hardships of the average person. Let us know that it is possible, instead of reminding us time and time again that those who have the luxury of the help that we can only dream of having are the ones who always seem to receive the most recognition for it.
This isn’t to say that these riders who do have a lot of help don’t deserve it or don’t work hard. I am sure they do. But, people need to realize privilege when they see it and realize it isn’t exactly inspiring to people who can take one look at an article and realize the person in question doesn’t have to worry about something as basic as a full time job in order to afford the life they have. This creates such a large disconnect from the average riders and the commonly discussed ones on the circuit and honestly makes a lot of riders reconsider their dreams because it only serves to solidify how great the disconnect in finances and fortune is between so many in the horse industry.
We need more “underdog” stories, except, they shouldn’t be called that. They are the reality. Far more riders are struggling to make ends meet and working their tails off for little reward simply because they love the sport. Far more riders work overtime just to enjoy a lesson here or there or to feed their beloved horse that they may barely get to see between work and school. There are tons of us who struggle with the same realities of adulthood. The suffocating pressures of school, work and trying to move up the ranks in the horse world. Let us know that you see us. Let us have a glimpse of reality, of people like us.
For me, the reality of being an equestrian in university is this: Wake up, go to work and gallop up to 10 racehorses. Get changed in my car. Drive straight to school without showering. Sit in a lecture from anywhere from 3 to 6 hours. Go home, ride some more horses for work. Ride my own horses. Shower. Eat dinner. Do some homework. Wake up, do it all again. And god forbid there is a show, because the reality for that is getting up before the sun, working prior to my classes and then speeding over to the show, tacking my horse myself, racing to the warm up ring and getting to my classes. Getting off my horse after cooling out, exhausted. Caring for my horse, cleaning his stall and getting everything set up for dinner feed before collapsing for a quick nap prior to doing more work. This, quite honestly, takes a fair amount of the excitement and joy away from showing because I am simply so exhausted and often stressed from having to juggle work and showing along with school. I can’t just book time off, either, because the money is what pays for it all. It is suffocating at times. It is all or it is nothing. If I want to show, I have to work. If I want to attend university, I have to find a way to pay for it on my own. If I want a horse or new tack, I have to buy it.
Burnout comes easily when you are constantly on the go and feel like no amount of work will ever cover just everything you need to do. Everything you need to afford. It is so hard to stay motivated in your riding and school work when you have to juggle so much else and to be honest, it does eat away at the joy horses bring you, even if for a short period of time. For people like this, staying in love with the horse show world can be a challenge. We need more recognition, we need to know we are not alone in the struggle of working our fingers to the bone to afford what we love. That we aren’t alone in questioning why we do this, whether or not we should just give up. Let us know we are not alone. Portray the reality of university equestrians, the ones who are truly going it alone and who somehow manage crazy schedules. We want to see it.
For now, I will go on riding my $400 rescue horse in the shows we can afford. Working everyday, consistently full time along with school and shuddering when I see my $15,000 worth of student debt that is sure to grow over the next few years. I will look on at other people my age graduating with their degrees with a twinge of sadness, because I couldn’t afford to take a consistent course load all of these years and am behind in my schooling in comparison. I will feel sharp pangs of jealousy when I watch others accomplish schooling debt free, due to the support from their parents who are financially able to help. And, I may chuckle with a small amount of bitterness every time I see an article about a rider’s “crazy university schedule” knowing that they will never have to understand the struggling of tackling a similar schedule but with the addition of tens of thousands of dollars that they need to find a way to afford and find more hours in the day to work a job in order to make it all possible. Yes, I’m cynical. Yes, I’m bitter. But, mostly, I’m tired of constantly being fed role models that only serve to make me feel bad about the reality of my university experience. That make me feel lesser than. That the average human cannot even begin to relate to.