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Haley Ruffner

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Best of HN: Traveling … With Hat Cans

When traveling 1,500 miles with eight college equestrians, two old cowboys, their chaperone (our coach’s wife), the coach of another IHSA equestrian team (who also happens to be my mom), and all of our show gear (boots, garment bags in suitcases and hat cans), our group tends to draw considerable attention at airports.

At 4 a.m. last Thursday, we arrived at the airport in Buffalo as a stumbling herd with clanking spurs buried in our suitcases, groggy and clutching tickets for the three flights it would take to get us to Amarillo, Texas.

Once our first flight landed at a decent hour of the morning, when the airport’s other customers were more awake, we started getting looks and questions, the most common one being, “What is in those boxes?”

“Racing turtles” was our answer. At first, this response was probably unconvincing, mostly because the rest of the team burst out laughing as soon as one answered. Our first victim was the man who polished boots at Buffalo’s airport, the only coherent and conversational person we could find before sunrise. My teammate Ellie brought her hat can to him, asking, “Will you polish my turtle’s shell?”

“At my age, I’ll try anything,” he said.

A few hours later, in Newark, one woman (my parents’ age) seated at breakfast with a group of friends, asked us about our hat cans. “These are just our racing turtles,” my coach Harry said, deadpan. “We’re on our way to a race in Amarillo.”

“Ohhhhhh,” the woman replied, one drawn-out note of having learned some riveting new piece of information, wide-eyed. She nudged her friends, watching us walk by in awe. We didn’t make it out of earshot before dissolving into laughter.

The unsuspecting people we encountered during the rest of the day were subject to increasingly intricate descriptions of the contents of our hat can. Someone asked if our turtles were comfortable in there, to which we responded that they had food and water, and the containers were ventilated along the edges.

One man who stood next to us in line for our second flight laughed at us when we told him about the turtles. “No, I’m sorry, it’s just… are you serious? I don’t mean to offend you, I’ve just never heard of such a thing!” (“It’s alright, they won’t be offended,” I said, patting my hat can.)

He went on to ask us what size our turtles are. “Mine’s only about eight inches round; he’s just a year old, so he still has some growing to do,” I said. My teammate Ellie added that hers was bigger and older, and she’d bought him after he had already won a few races, so he was more expensive.

After asking us if we had sponsors for turtle racing (“No, we don’t because we’re a smaller college team, but the big professional teams do have sponsors”), how far we raced (“Only about 10 yards, no one wants to wait and watch these guys go too far”), and, my personal favorite, how we trained our turtles.

Ellie replied that we use carrots to train them for racing, fasting them the day before a race so that their hunger motivates them. “Only for a day, though,” she said. “Nothing too extreme.”

By the end of our conversation, he was fully convinced that our hat cans contained racing turtles, wished us good luck, and told us that he couldn’t wait to tell his kids about them.

On our last flight, one man asked me all about the turtle-racing circuit. “It’s an up-and-coming sport,” I said. “Do you use snapping turtles?” Somehow, despite being awake since 3AM that morning (or perhaps because of it), I immediately turned to my teammate across the aisle and said, “Well, mine’s not, but I think Courtney races a snapping turtle. They’re in a separate division, though.”

“Yeah, they have to wear muzzles when we race them,” Courtney said, further cementing our story. The woman seated in front of her shifted away from her, eyeing the hat can stowed beneath her seat warily. She slid her feet forward, away from it.

Although no one ever asked, my “racing turtle” is called Secreturtlat, a name I hope to be able to share with some unsuspecting non-equestrian on our homeward flight. Either way, flying with racing turtles is infinitely more entertaining than the boring western hats actually stowed in those plastic domed boxes.

Haley is the author of Horse Nation’s “Academic Equestrian” series, following her collegiate experience as she balances her studies with participation on the varsity equestrian team and time with her own horse. Catch up on past columns by clicking the #ACADEMIC EQUESTRIAN tag at the top of the page!

Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with minors in Business and Equestrian Studies. She owns a Quarter horse gelding At Last An Invitation, or “Cricket.” Haley is the captain of the AU western equestrian team, and also competes in reining and loves trail riding.

Best of HN: 5 Challenges of Being a Short Equestrian

At just a few inches over five feet, I don’t quite fit the image of a tall, slender girl poised elegantly atop a fancy horse; rather, I look more like a pudgy child whose stirrups never quite go short enough, feet comically close to the bottom edge of the saddle pad. I almost need a ladder to tack up our tallest school horse — it’s more of an aim-and-heave saddle hoist than a gentle placement on his back. The horses laugh when I go into their stalls with a set of earplugs they don’t want to wear. Below are some other challenges I’ve encountered as a smallish western rider.

1. The top saddle racks in the tack room. These are the most dreaded part of a practice — I can usually get saddles down from them, but after practice I’m stranded in the tack room, waiting for a vertically-advantaged teammate to come to my rescue while I hold the edge of a saddle because I thought that maybe this time I could actually throw it all the way up there, and now it has tipped sideways, about to fall.

2. Too-long pants. “Short” jeans are slightly too short when I ride and somehow disproportionate, but regular length jeans are long enough to drag on the ground. My fix is to just never take my spurs off my boots, letting them hold up the backs of my jeans so they don’t get torn up.

3. Stirrup length. Riding in a multitude of school saddles for intercollegiate shows is a constant reminder that normal saddles are not made for legs that stopped growing when I was twelve. “Are you sure you want your stirrups all the way up?” ask my teammates and coaches at every show ever. The extra bad news is that, if you’re not tall enough to reach your stirrups, you’re also too short to reach the hole punch where it hangs above the tack room door. Lose-lose situation.

4. Tall horses. Hello, Tex, you almost-seventeen-hand beauty, I hope you didn’t roll because I can’t see any of the top of your back, much less reach it to brush it. Also, if you wouldn’t mind lowering your head so that maybe I could at least entertain the illusion that you’ll let me bridle you, that would be great. Thanks.

5. Mounting blocks + chaps. Combine a restricted range of leg motion with a wobbly plastic stool and a horse who’s losing patience, and every time you have to mount up before a class becomes a mini-ordeal. Half-lunges (while praying my horsemanship pants don’t split) in an attempt to stretch out my chaps enough to reach the stirrup are a pre-show ritual.

One place I refuse to let my height be a disadvantage is in the saddle. Once I’ve found one with short enough stirrups, I stretch up, heels down and chin up, like I’m six feet tall and nothing is out of my reach. On the back of a horse, nothing is.

Haley is the author of Horse Nation’s “Academic Equestrian” series, following her collegiate experience as she balances her studies with participation on the varsity equestrian team and time with her own horse.

Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with minors in Business and Equestrian Studies. She owns a Quarter horse gelding At Last An Invitation, or “Cricket.” Haley is the captain of the AU western equestrian team, and also competes in reining and loves trail riding.