Trading College for a Degree from Woodstock Eventing

In EN's next blog powered by Athletux, Charlie Campbell tells the tale of how two summers spent working for Phillip Dutton ultimately spurred him to take a full-time position with Ryan Wood's Woodstock Eventing — and how he made the decision to forgo college to pursue excellence in the sport that he loves.

Charlie Campbell schooling at Boyd Martin's Windurra Farm. Photo by Ryan Wood. Charlie Campbell schooling at Boyd Martin's Windurra Farm. Photo by Ryan Wood.

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City and later living in the city itself, college was always a given. From the first days of school we were told to study hard, submit our homework on time and create ourselves into college applicants. The mantra was “you can be anything you want to be,” but the subtext was always “as long as you go to college.”

For 12 years my peers and I crafted ourselves into people who would be accepted into college. We studied, we wrote essays and we all found that thing that made us unique — the thing that would make us stand out to a college admissions officer. For some it was varsity sports; for others it was music; for me it was horses.

I didn’t start riding as a way into college per se — it was a way my mother and I could take time out of our busy schedules and do something together — but everyone could agree as a male rider it certainly made me stand out from the other kids and would look good on a college application.

I started riding when I was 11, and to be completely honest, I wasn’t all too fond of it. My mother and I rode at various smaller hunter/jumper barns, and I would be forced to attend lessons where I would be told to walk, trot and sometimes canter in a series of unimaginative patterns. I longed to be like the other kids who stayed after school — members of the school’s athletic teams.

My mother began to realize my waning interest and desperately sought to find ways to re-interest me. For the most part her attempts were unsuccessful, that is until she took me to Rolex. It was at Rolex that I fell in love; it was at Rolex that I realized riding wasn’t just trotting in circles and jumping small cross rails. All of a sudden a whole new world had opened up, one where horses could bring speed and adrenaline to my life.

Following Rolex my mother realized that I had caught the bug and quickly monopolized on my newfound interest by signing me up for the Phillip Dutton Eventing Academy. The camp was both amazing and dreadful at the same time. It was dreadful because while everyone else showed up knowing the basics of eventing, I arrived knowing only what I had seen the one time at Rolex.

The low point of that week was probably seeing Silva Martin’s face halfway through my dressage lesson when she realized up to that point no one had even explained to me the concept of putting a horse on the bit, much less how to do it. Despite the steep learning curve, the camp as a whole was a positive experience, and after a week at True Prospect Farm watching Phillip, his riders and his working students, I knew that was were I was supposed to be.

The next two summers I worked for Phillip as a working student, and it was there working along side Phillip, Jennie Branigan and Ryan Wood that I began to realize that eventing could become a career. It was also during this time that I competed in my first event, which was a fiasco to say the least.

While at Phillip’s I got to know Ryan. He made me feel included in the community, inviting me to barbecues at his apartment and dinners at the local restaurants. He was also quick to notice when I would get frustrated with my slow progress with riding, and he would tell me anecdotes from his day as a new eventer back in Australia to cheer me up. Over time I began to realize that once Ryan went off on his own, I wanted to follow and work for Woodstock. There was only one problem: college.

I floated the idea to my parents of not going to college to become a full-time working student, and I was promptly shot down, partly because I was a pretty abysmal rider, and partly because my parents still believed that if I were to be successful in life I would need to go to university.

So I applied to college, was accepted and brought up the idea to my parents of deferring my admission for a year and taking a gap year. Somewhat surprisingly, they were completely on board with the idea. While my parents may have been on board with my deferment, a lot of people weren’t.

Quite a few of my parents’ friends, and a few riding professionals as well, told me not to bother and that I should just go to college because if I deferred I would never go to university and that riding was no way to make a living. None the less, I persevered with my plan and after graduating from high school, I moved to West Grove, Pennsylvania, to join the rest of the Woodstock team.

My first year working for Ryan was filled with disappointment, not with Ryan or the program, but with myself. I had been working tirelessly to get my horse to Young Riders and consistently fell short in the show jumping phase, racking up non-qualifying score after non-qualifying score due to upwards of four rails per show.

Often I would ask Ryan, “Should I have gone to college?” “Is this the right place for me?” But without fail, he would respond: “College will always be there. Right now you are making progress, and if you keep focused on self improvement, you can be successful.” Slowly I started to notice progress. I started scoring lower and lower in dressage, and I was consistently jumping around cross country under time; even my show jumping was beginning to improve.

Eventually my gap year came to an end, but I wasn’t ready to go to school. I had the taste of accomplishment in my mouth, and I wasn’t ready to let riding take a back seat. I petitioned both my parents and the college I was enrolled in to allow me to take a second year off, and I set into my riding with frenzy.

I moved my horse up to the Intermediate level, where I enjoyed moderate success, including winning an Intermediate on the third anniversary of my first event. I then sold that horse and with Ryan’s help found a green but promising 4-year-old to bring along. By the end of my second year at Ryan’s, I knew that at this time college wasn’t where I needed to be.

I called my mother up expecting a fight when I told her I didn’t want to go, but instead of a fight I was given support. She had seen the passion that I had demonstrated for my riding and my job at Woodstock, and she realized that I would not find that type of commitment in any other field.

It was my mother who pointed out that at the end of the day college is where you go to figure out what you want to do and to hone your skills to be able to follow your chosen career path, but in my own way that is exactly what I had been doing all along. Instead of going to university to acquire a job that would make me lots of money, I have chosen to study under Ryan, who is my version of a professor, so that I may strive to pursue excellence in the sport that I love.