By Emily Stearns
I started riding at a very young age, mostly trail rides and the occasional lesson. In elementary school, because I wasn’t busy enough with ballet, sailing, soccer, and music lessons, I somehow convinced my parents to take me to weekly riding lessons. I was drawn to eventing and dressage, and by the time I was in middle school I was competing on some fantastic lesson ponies in local events. As I grew older, I threw myself into the “barn rat life”, for more catch rides and any extra barn time I could get. I attended high school at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, MA, and continued my riding with their program and joined the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA). I had never ridden hunters or equitation before, so that first year on the IEA team was purely educational. I rode on the Dana Hall IEA team each year of high school, and during my senior year I was elected to captain the team.
After high school, I took a year off to figure out what I wanted to do with my life (and to ride as much as possible). After my gap year, I went on to complete four years at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). There, I received my Bachelor of Science in Animal Science with a focus in Equine Management and a minor in Animal Behavior. During college, I was looking for more ways to make friends and wasn’t interested in joining a sorority. One day, while I was at the barn, I discovered a flyer for joining the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) team. I knew from competing in IEA throughout high school that I loved the team aspect, but recognized that the hunter and equitation style wasn’t “my jam”, so I chose to sign up for IDA tryouts over the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA). Tryouts lasted all day, and there were a lot of great riders. But, to my surprise, I made the team my first semester of freshman year.
During my senior year, I was once again elected captain, this time of IDA. My best friend on the team had been elected the year before, so I was psyched to lead the team along with her. The camaraderie was my favorite part about IDA. My co-captain and I were passionate about bringing the team together, and made a huge effort to organize monthly team bonding activities like dinners at the dining hall, t-shirt decorating, and poster making – all things that were easy to organize but made for a great time.
The UNH Equestrian Team is small and tight knit. The members of the IDA team came from various majors, and it was nice to have friends involved in other programs within the university. Through my teammates, I learned about different programs and clubs and found myself taking classes that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. While the riding and the chance to compete was always a big part of why I loved participating in IDA, the team dynamics and friendships I made kept me returning for all four years of my undergrad. When life got stressful, I always found myself gravitating towards my teammates.
After graduation, I accepted a barn management and instructor position for an eventing barn on Cape Cod, but I still wanted to pursue my Master of Science in Equine Science. Then one day, I received an e-mail from my old coach explaining that they were looking for someone to coach the IDA team. I couldn’t find a reason to say no- I’d had such a great time participating as a student that I figured it had to be just as much fun coaching! The transition from rider to coach was relatively smooth. The team members were incredibly helpful and kind in helping me orient myself to the more administrative tasks associated with coaching. My previous experience as a captain was also extremely beneficial. I started coaching with solid knowledge about the need for good team morale and cohesion, and made it my priority to ensure equal and willing participation from all members.
My favorite part about being a coach is watching my riders work towards something and succeed. The UNH Equestrian Team (our joint IHSA and IDA teams) puts together a banquet at the end of each year, and seeing them all come together and congratulate each other on a great year is an awesome feeling. I feel like a proud mom! My least favorite part is whenever my students have to struggle with a disappointment. Whether it is making a mistake in a test, getting the tough draw of the day, or not placing as well as they thought they would, it’s my job to remind them that, at the end of the day, those five minutes in the ring aren’t a summary of their entire life, and as cheesy as it is, there’s always next time.
My biggest triumph was definitely taking our senior intro rider to IDA Nationals in New Jersey. It was her first and only year on the team, and it was awesome to watch her qualify. I was so proud to be standing in the ring with her for awards (she placed fourth!), but I was even more proud of how incredibly supportive the rest of the team was of her. The main goal I have for all of my students is to always respect their fellow teammates and the horses they ride. I also want them to be willing to recognize that everyone they work with has something to contribute, regardless of how big or small that might be. Being part of a team is about being able to come together to achieve something, whether it’s with horses or with people. The relationships I built with my coach and team members, as a student, are ones that have stuck with me through my post college life, and supersede any points or placing I had. I hope my students are able to find that as well.