Island Life (Part II)

In her last blog entry, senior Emily Galka outlined her duties as a trail riding guide on Mackinac Island, a job she’s held each summer since her first year at Albion. While working on the island, she’s partnered with Percheron cross mare Big Lisa, an unlikely relationship she’s come to treasure.

Here’s their story:

When the horse I first tried to ride in my job as a trail guide for Cindy’s Riding Stable on Mackinac Island didn’t make the cut (for obvious reasons), I needed a replacement mount. The very next day more new horses shipped in – and I mean that literally; horses headed to the island have to take the Arnold Line and ferry in from the mainland just like everyone else.

Lisa sails

Lisa and I came over together on the Arnold Line this year – and went viral on the Mackinac Island News & Views Facebook group!

I remember walking through the barn when one of the newbies caught my eye. She was a large, lightly dappled grey draught mare of some sort, with extremely large hindquarters. I asked Burt Gough what he knew about that horse and he told me he used to ride her brother, Tony, as his guide horse. He guessed she was about six years old and told me she’s a Percheron-Quarter Horse cross. They planned to call her Lisa, which I thought was a weird name for a horse; it was too human and besides, she didn’t look like a Lisa.

Burt explained that they had a family friend named Tony who was a big guy so they thought it would be funny to name his horse (who was big too) after Tony. The person named Tony has a sister named Lisa so it is fitting for Tony the horse to have a little sister named Lisa. I still thought that was kind of silly, but I guess when your family owns nearly a hundred horses and buys new ones every year, you start naming horses after your friends. I was very eager to continue riding along on guide trips to learn the trails and get to know the rental horses’ personalities, so I let the name thing go and asked if I could take Lisa on the next trip.

I saddled her up and followed Kristi Gough’s group of tourists into the side yard. Lisa danced around as I tried to climb aboard and one of the tourists watched nervously. He asked if I was his guide.

“No” I said. “I’m trying out this new horse. We’re both the newbies here but hopefully I’ll last longer than she does.”

At this point all of the tourists were mounted and had a brief explanation on how to steer and stop. We started up the road and Lisa followed along. It went pretty well until we got to a trail we refer to as “the pole line,” a dusty gravel trail that is lined with – you guessed it! – telephone poles. That was where Lisa decided it would be a good place to drop to the ground and roll in the dirt.

Kristi screamed “Lisa!” and I hopped off right as her belly hit the ground. I’ve been on horses who dropped and rolled before so I knew I had to bail or she could roll sideways and break my leg.

Lisa photo shoot

Though Lisa wasn’t cut out for life as a rental horse, she might have a career in modeling – as long as she gets paid in apples!

I grabbed the reins and after a lot of yelling and pulling, Lisa was back up on four feet. Call me crazy, but at that moment I knew I wanted to keep working with her. (I mean, clearly Lisa needed work before we could even consider putting her in the rental string.) I asked if I could take Lisa out to try to improve on her riding manners and also get to know the trails so throughout the summer I continued to ride Lisa as much as possible and even had my mom bring up my English saddle so I could try jumping her. Slowly but surely, she became the perfect horse for me. As a tall girl, she is large enough that I didn’t look like a giant on her but she wasn’t too tall that I couldn’t climb on out on the trails. What’s more, she nickered at me every time I came to her stall and she was just the right amount of easy-going trail horse but still a challenge for me. After a childhood of riding bay Morgan geldings, I never thought in a million years I would fall in love with a grey, Percheron mare.

About halfway through that first summer, however, the decision was made to ship Lisa back to the farm. She was well-behaved for me, but if tourists (even the ones claiming to be expert riders) or other guides tried to ride her, she danced around, tossed her head, and – yes – occasionally rolled while under saddle. When she left, I regretfully remembered saying, “We’re both the newbies here but hopefully I’ll last longer than she does.”

Lisa Adventures

Sometimes after work (when I’m not completely worn out), I take Lisa out for night rides on the shoreline.

Fall came and school started again. I was happy to be back at Albion and ride with my teammates, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Lisa. Would she even come back the next summer? All year I anxiously wondered if I would ever see her again and around April I got the call asking me to work for Cindy’s again. I really wanted to continue working on the island and decided to make the best of it even if Lisa didn’t come back.

The bad news is that Lisa never made it as a rental horse.

The good news is that she came back to work as my guide horse instead!

Lisa and I are currently spending our third summer together at Cindy’s and, though it is a lot of hard work, we have a lot of fun as well. Since it’s my senior year, I’d like our partnership to continue, so this fall I hope to bring Lisa to Albion. It would be a new and different adventure for both of us!

Emily will begin her senior year at Albion this fall; a biology major with an art minor from Cadillac, Michigan, she hopes to head to vet school after graduation. She is also a member of the hunt seat team and often plays chief photographer for Held Center mascot Ace, the miniature horse.

Island Life (Part I)

Albion senior Emily Galka is spending her third summer working as a riding trail guide at Cindy’s Riding Stable on Mackinac Island, the famed vehicle-free vacation hub in northern Michigan. (Famously, Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour was filmed there.) Needless to say, an island powered entirely by horses is paradise for this hunt seat team member! She’s written two blog entries about her experiences; in Part I, she outlines daily life on the island and the experiences she’s had over the past few summers. In Part II, she’ll introduce readers to her four-legged coworker, Big Lisa.

I have worked on Mackinac Island at Cindy’s Riding Stable every summer I’ve been in college. In my time here, I’ve found a second home at “The Big House” with the Gough Family and Cindy’s crew, mastered 80 miles of trails, and fallen in love with a Percheron. (More on that later).

My parents first brought me to Mackinac Island when I was four months old. It was our first family vacation and my first time around horses. I believe that was when my love for horses began because my mom told me that as soon as I could talk, I was asking about horses and if we could get one.

Mackinac 1

My first trip to Mackinac Island was at four months and I’ve spent the last three summers there.

By age seven, my mom realized my love for horses was not going away, so she enrolled me in hunt seat riding lessons at Talamar Morgan Farm, a barn just down the road from our house. As I became more experienced, in addition to riding lessons, I was allowed to come and ride whenever I wanted – even if that meant taking a horse out on a trail ride for several hours with friends or by myself. As a teenager, my riding instructor would coordinate trail rides across Michigan that took about a week of camping and riding 25-30 miles per day. It was during one of those week long trail rides that I met Isaac, a fellow rider whose father had once worked on Mackinac Island as a trail guide at Jack’s Livery Stable.

The years passed by and I kept riding at Talamar, even getting a little bit of show experience to prepare for the equestrian team I hoped to try out for in college. Though sad to leave the horses I grew up with, I was ready to move on to Albion and it was about halfway through my freshman year when I decided to look into jobs for the summer. Isaac had worked the previous summer on Mackinac Island as a trail guide at the same company his dad worked for and it sounded like a job I could enjoy, so I asked him about it and decided it was worth a try. I was interviewed in May and by June 2014, I started work at Cindy’s Riding Stable.

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Leading out a group aboard Big Lisa.

Cindy’s is a family company run by the Gough family. They also own Jack’s Livery Stable, which has saddle horses and drive-yourself carriages. Most of the crew are relatives of the Gough’s (including their three grown children) and family friends. Each year they hire a few summer workers, but many are returning crew members so in 2014 I was the only Cindy’s guide who had never worked at the stable before.

At Cindy’s there are 37 horses: 31 are rentals and six are guide horses. A lot of the same rentals come back to work each year, but there are always some who retire and we try out replacements. Every day of the season, Cindy’s crew (six guides and the barn man) arrive at the barn at 7:00 a.m. to clean stalls, brush, bathe, and saddle all 37 horses before 9:00 a.m. because by 9:00 (and sometimes earlier), we have customers at the door who want to ride. Each rider fills out a questionnaire to help the person who rents the horses get a feel for the rider’s ability in order to match them up with a horse. We then bring the horses to the side yard, help the riders mount, and give them a general overview on how to stop and steer. Everyone is escorted out of town by a guide with group sizes ranging from one to a dozen horses and once we are out of town, the guide can either stay with the riders the entire time or give them directions so they can finish on their own.

On a busy day in the summer, a guide may go out for four or five trips, meaning we are riding for four or more hours per day, five days a week. We stay open until 6:00, which means if the last group goes for an hour, we will be back by 7:00 to untack and feed the horses. Working as a trail guide may look easy, but it is very draining to manage people on horses in traffic who usually have no idea what they are doing. When I come home after work, I eat, shower, and go straight to bed. In addition to riding ability, guides need to be prepared for a lot of barn work and physical labor, have people skills, and be prepared to handle mishaps calmly and effectively. Yes, the tourists do fall off on occasion – and so do we! My first day at Cindy’s, I was told to ride one of the new horses to test it out before we rented it. I walked her into the yard, put one foot in the stirrup and the mare reared up and flew backwards. After her fit, I calmly grabbed the reins, climbed back on, and followed the rest of the group up the road; the crew later told me that it was at this moment they knew I would fit in.

I’ve been here every summer since. Now I feel at home here and wouldn’t spend my summers any other way .

Check back soon for the second installment of Emily’s tale of life on Mackinac Island, which outlines how she met Percheron cross Big Lisa – a partnership for the ages and one that she hopes to continue beyond summer.

A Young Alumna Reflects

Back in 2010, the Albion College equestrian program featured three of our students in a series of summer blogs. One of those bloggers was a student who graduated in May but had a really unique internship with Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, Florida that we asked her to share with us.


Mary Applegate ’10 has a high-flying career as a marine biologist – the exact job she hoped for when she graduated from Albion.

That alumna was Mary Applegate ’10, a four-year member of our intercollegiate dressage team, a two-time IDA Nationals qualifier, and our 2010 Most Valuable Rider winner for dressage. In re-connecting with her as part of our “Where Are They” Wednesday photo series on Facebook, we thought it would be fun to let her share a more in-depth description of what she’s been up to since graduation.

Here’s Mary, in her own words:

My “official title” these days (e.g. how I get hired/ fancy words to make me fit a box) is “OPS Fisheries Biologist I.” In reality, I’m a Marine Mammal/ Marine Protected Species Observer, and in the simplest terms, I’m a marine biologist.

My job is quite unique, a little crazy, and hard to understand.

In a nutshell, I fly around in small planes and work on boats for a variety of research organizations where we survey marine protected species – specifically marine mammals and sea turtles. My job is especially unique because I work on a variety of seasonal contracts throughout the year, which takes me around the country.

I have settled into more of a rotation these past few years and work seasonally in the winter in St Augustine, Florida for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on their North Atlantic Right Whale Program. This position involves aerial- and vessel-based research on the distribution, photo documentation, and ship strike mitigation for these critically endangered animals, which use the coastal areas of northeast Florida and southeast Georgia in the winter to give birth and nurse their young calves. (Learn more about my current project here.)


Applegate at work.

I alternate this project with a variety of other contracts, which vary from dolphin research, coast-wide species distribution population surveys, and even river and stream conservation.  As you can imagine, this leads to quite the dynamic and ever-changing life, which is wonderful. I think Albion really prepped me for this because, aside from getting an amazing education, and having wonderful experiences in the sciences, when I look back, I realize that Albion really prepped me for the diversity of my career. Albion as a whole emphasizes creating a well-rounded student who is prepared for anything, and that’s the key to my career. I left college not only with an amazing educational background but ready to take on anything the world had to throw at me.

Unfortunately, my career right now makes it difficult to stay active in equestrian activities. That can be a sad reality of the real world, especially in a nomadic job and life like mine. The upside to my travels is that I often have a bit of time between projects to catch up with family. I’ve developed a good relationship with a barn at home and often will go work horses, take lessons, and get my horse fix in. I’m very lucky in that regard and look forward in the future to settling in one place and getting more involved with horses – and hopefully show again!


Applegate at her final Intercollegiate Dressage Association national championship in 2010. She finished sixth individually in 2008 and fourth individually in 2010 to cap her career.

Overall, Albion helped to shape me into a very well rounded career-minded person. Not only did I leave with a strong background in science, I left with an interdisciplinary mindset that develops from a strong liberal arts college background. Learning to mold, adapt, and problem solve through the IDA team and my riding lesson experiences not only set me up to be a well-rounded rider, but taught me traits that strongly carry over in my career.

I work with a diverse group of people in situations where teamwork is essential. Being a part of a collegiate team as well as the equestrian club emphasized teamwork and encouragement that has really prepared me for the variety of people and experiences that I have encountered on the job. It also equipped me with leadership skills that prepared me for not only working with a number of people, but being able to guide others through new experiences in the field.

To learn more about Mary’s post-grad experiences with Mote Marine Lab, you may read her 2010 blog entries here. (Please note that blog entries post in reverse order.) To find out what other Albion equestrian alumni are up to (both in the saddle and in the workplace), visit the Equestrian Center web site.




Out of My Comfort Zone


Paige and her horse Pippen at the Groton Horse Trials, summer 2015.

I started my college search the beginning of my junior year, months before many of my classmates in high school were even thinking about where they wanted to go. While I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life at the time, I saw college as an opportunity to push myself a bit out of my comfort zone and try something new. My criteria were that the school had a riding program and that it was at least a “road trip away” from my home town of West Newbury, MA. Other than that I didn’t really know what I wanted and I began sorting through the many options by eliminating what I knew I didn’t want in a school.

While I wanted to go to a school with a strong riding program, I never wanted to study horses or make them my career. Instead I planned to major in psychology and maybe pursue graduate school in the future.

Still, I was initially drawn to the big-name equestrian colleges like Cazenovia College and the University of Findlay. These schools had state of the art facilities, gorgeous horses, and connections to a number of big-name riders. The idea of attending a school like this is probably something every equestrian dreams about at some point in her life, but after my initial campus tours, I quickly realized that the reality of these schools was not for me. The big equestrian schools almost always have large equine studies degree programs from which they draw most of their intercollegiate team members.

I quickly realized that at most of these schools, you weren’t going to be able to ride unless you were majoring in horses.

As I began to re-evaluate my list of prospective colleges, I was soon faced with a new, opposite problem. Schools that don’t have equine studies programs but do have intercollegiate equestrian teams are few and far between. Of the ones that exist, they usually ride out of private boarding barns and struggle to compete against the Findlays and the Cazenovias of the world. For me, my dream school was something in between: a school that was competitive in its IDA and IHSA regions but offered rigorous academic programs as well.

I initially found Albion through a college search engine my high school offered and, although I had never heard of it prior to that, I suddenly started seeing the name everywhere. Albion had launched a massive marketing campaign and advertised itself as being different from other riding schools. Albion offered three intercollegiate riding teams and it boasted the Midwest’s largest indoor arena, but did not offer equine studies degrees. Their philosophy was supportive of pro riders but they recommended pursuing a business, pre-veterinary, or economics degree for those who truly want to make a career in the equine industry. Then after class students could take lessons, lease horses, and compete at the Held Center, located convenient to the main campus.


Paige (right) prepares for her dressage test aboard Romulus at the Michigan State meet last fall. Assisting are teammates Bria Flanagan ’19 (left) and Jessi Fore ’19 (center).

I toured Albion in the fall of my senior year and instantly felt that this was the school for me. The campus was beautiful, especially in the fall, and everyone I met was friendly and supportive. After my tour I returned to admissions, gushing about how much I loved the school. The counselor who met with me laughed and said “Wait until you see the barn!”

He was right, the barn certainly sealed the deal.

After my tour at Albion (the last school I looked at), I really only wanted to apply to two schools. Of course, my mom wisely made me apply to three or four other schools, but in my mind there was really no question about it. I wanted to go to Albion and when I was accepted I nearly cried.

That was four years ago and now I’ve ridden on two of the three teams Albion offers, competed at the Intercollegiate Dressage Association National Championship, and cried over graduate school acceptance letters. Albion has been instrumental in helping me achieve not only my riding goals but my academic and professional ones as well. I’ve also met so many great friends here and had a tremendous amount of fun.

Not many other schools allow you to go ride at the barn in between your biology and statistics classes, but this one does!

Paige Beliveau is a senior dressage team co-captain from West Newbury, Massachusetts. She is a psychology major and also a member of the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service. She was accepted at Roger Williams University and Northeastern University for graduate school and has committed to Roger Williams to begin her Masters degree in Forensic Psychology this fall.

Organized Chaos

When I was 12, I decided to run away and join the circus.

Actually, running away is a strong phrase. I didn’t want to run away because at my house I had these fluffy, fuzzy friends called horses (or ponies – whichever you prefer). What I really wanted to do was perform in the circus until after college, then go professional in a big time circus.


Young Jessi performs on the double trapeze.

Now this dream (contrary to what some readers may think) was not too far out of reach. You see, at 12 years old, I was already performing in a circus as a trapeze artist because the Wenatchee Youth Circus had welcomed me into its family and, after I showed a love of heights and challenges and a strong work ethic, taught me to perform the different aerial acts.

This strange background in the circus arts was complemented by a riding career that started at age three and a music career begun at age four. To add to the out-of-the-ordinary application I sent to Albion College last fall, I am also a student from Washington (the state), which as you know is not exactly Michigan’s next door neighbor. Yet as a circus performer, animal lover, and musician, my background was definitely diverse enough for a liberal arts school.

At this point (the beginning of my college adventure) I am a music performance major with (hopefully) minors in both biology and chemistry, and am a member of the Healthcare Institute, unique academic combinations that undoubtedly bring up the question: What is circus freak/horse girl doing majoring in music at Albion College? (And why is she majoring in music if she wants to go to medical school?)


At the same time she was a performing trapeze artist, Jessi also evented aboard her pony, Kiana.

The simple answer is “Why not?”

What not everyone understands about a liberal arts school is that being completely out of the box and unconventional is totally okay – in fact, it’s basically applauded. No, my major doesn’t help me to earn classes toward medical school, but I love it. Riding on the Albion dressage team takes time away from my studies, but I love it. Being in the circus got me laughed at sometimes, but I loved it. I told myself when I went to college that I would never sacrifice something that I loved simply to conform to what was thought to be the traditional, “better” path.

Obviously I no longer plan to join a professional circus. (Professional circus performers don’t make enough to pay off student loans. Crazy, right?) I also don’t plan on playing music professionally, despite majoring in music performance on the viola.

All I really know is that I love music and I have spent my life studying it; it would be such a waste to me to throw away all the hours in practice rooms simply to study the traditional sciences – and if there is anything the circus taught me, it’s how to be nontraditional. And didn’t Ralph Waldo Emerson say in his praise of transcendentalism that “to be great is to be misunderstood?”


Jessi and Katie tackle a cross-country fence.

Circus and music and horses compelled me to keep that same level of organized chaos and diversity in my studies.

Few people understand why I chose to study this collage of topics, but to me, that’s okay. The lovely thing about Albion (and liberal arts schools in general) is that you don’t have to decide between what you love and what you want to be. You can be all the different versions of yourself that you want (within a healthy amount of reason, of course). One student can be an athlete and a business major and study a foreign language while still having the flexibility to participate in the drama department, so long as they possess decent time management skills.

And that, my friends, is how (and why) a horse girl-trapeze artist came to Albion to major in music in the hopes of becoming a doctor.

Jessi Fore is a first-year student from Wenatchee, WA who made the journey to Albion on a cross-country road trip with her parents and her show jumper-turned-eventer, Katie. She is a member of the dressage team and plays viola in the Albion College symphony orchestra.

An Eventer Reflects as Graduation Approaches

Eventing was a fairly major factor in my decision to come to Albion.

The process of caring for and conditioning my horse had solidified my childhood dream of becoming a vet into wanting to pursue a career as an equine sports medicine specialist. Veterinary schools are notoriously difficult to get in to, however, so I knew I needed an undergraduate program that would set me up for success and Albion offered so many unique ways to help make my resume shine.


Emma and Capote on cross-country.

The Institute for Healthcare Professions not only offered me classes in preparing for veterinary medicine but supplemented those classes with constant personalized advice on scheduling classes, filling out applications, preparing for vet school interviews, and finding internships. That level of commitment to individual student success is utterly unique to Albion. The Healthcare Institute, Albion’s Honors Program, and the study abroad center helped me to fit a semester at the University of Glasgow into my packed schedule of double majoring and fulfilling veterinary school prerequisites.

Then there’s FURSCA.

Albion’s one-of-a-kind Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity (FURSCA) allowed me to do two summers of research with a faculty member. A FURSCA stipend is comparable to wages from most summer jobs and the fact that I had designed and completed two projects as an undergraduate really made my application to vet schools stand out. At pretty much every other undergraduate school, students have to search and beg for research opportunities; Albion not only paid me to do projects of my own, they also funded trips to present my work at national conferences.

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Emma and Owen school outside at the Held Equestrian Center last fall.

The fact that Albion is a small school also made it easy to develop relationships with faculty who could offer lots of help with tricky classes, suggest research projects and – crucially – write letters of recommendation that were genuinely representative of me as a student and a person. I know a lot of students at bigger schools struggle to find one professor who will do more than fill in their name on a pre-written letter of recommendation; at Albion, I easily know five or six professors who can write me great letters of recommendation.

All of this definitely paid off. Over winter break I received my acceptance letter from Michigan State’s College of Veterinary Medicine and it was easily one of the best moments of my life. (It rivaled the day I got my first horse.) I cannot express how grateful I am for the extraordinary levels of support and the truly unique opportunities that Albion provided at every turn to help me achieve my goal. [Editor’s note: Emma also received an acceptance letter from Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in mid-February.]

Albion’s commitment to providing a top-notch liberal arts education was also a major selling point for me. When I was applying to colleges, I knew I wanted to double major in English and biology because I thought it would help me stand out in the veterinary admissions process. As an eventer, I do both dressage and cross country, so why shouldn’t I get to study very different fields in school as well?

When I told people at other schools what I wanted to do, I got raised eyebrows and suggestions that I pick one major and maybe a minor. At Albion, the response was, “Great! You’ll fit right in!”

As strange as my choice in majors may have sounded, it’s turned out to have been an excellent path for a pre-vet student. My mom graduated from Albion with a double major in economics and English; she always impressed on me that if you want to succeed in any field you can’t just know about your field, you have to be able to explain that information effectively to others. Veterinary medicine is no different. Schools put a heavy emphasis on candidate’s personal statements and the various supplemental essays that each school requires. My many English classes really prepared to have my writing stand out. What’s more, I was able to highlight the fact that studying English will help me to explain complex medical terms and issues to my clients. My experience in eventing taught me that diversifying your training is the only way to succeed and I’m so happy that I found a school that feels the same way.

One of my biggest factors for choosing Albion was, of course, the Held Equestrian Center. I knew I wanted to continue riding in college because it’s my passion but, as a pre-vet student, I also knew I needed to get meaningful experience both working with animals and taking on leadership positions. At pretty much any other school with a top-notch equestrian program, you have to be an equine science major to get the full benefit of it. Albion doesn’t offer an equine science degree so economics, biology, and psychology majors all get equal consideration for teams, lessons, and positions in the equestrian club. I’ve been on the dressage team all four years, served as club secretary for a year, and now share the role of dressage team captain with my fellow eventer, Paige Beliveau. Our coach, Danielle Menteer, ensures that all riders have plenty of time for homework at shows and always makes sure that we put academics first – even if horses are a very, very close second.


Emma and Owen, out for a snowy afternoon hack.

Finally, eventing taught me the importance of community, from the coaches, friends, and family who help you every step of the way to the fellow competitors who wish you good luck on the way to cross-country. At Albion, I’ve found the same sort of close-knit, genuinely supportive community. It truly feels like everyone – from professors to fellow students to the campus safety guys who drive students to the barn – are always on your side:

I’m still friends with people I had a class with freshman year.

My organic chemistry professor invited my class over to his house to watch Frozen after a particularly stressful exam.

The professor for my medical micro-anatomy anatomy class brought a coffee maker and cups to every one of our 8 a.m. classes.

Most importantly, the big gold letters on the backs of the Albion College Equestrian jackets are an open invitation to sit down with whoever is wearing it and talk about horses.

I love eventing for the ever-present drive to improve, the constant and dynamic challenge, and the welcoming and supportive community that makes you feel like part of the family from day one. I love Albion for exactly the same reasons.

Emma Stapley is a senior English and biology major from Rockford, Michigan who will graduate in May and attend vet school, where she will make every attempt to follow in the career path of her hero, Dr. James Herriot. She is the proud owner of Thoroughbreds Capote and Owen, a passionate eventer, and also provided wonderful insight into what it’s like to study abroad during her time in Scotland with her blog at

Beginning the Dance

When I was a toddler, I did gymnastics. When I got to elementary, I played soccer. In middle school, I performed in theatre and in high school, I did ballet.

When I got to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I quickly learned that you couldn’t just “sign up” for sports. You actually had to be good. Your mom and dad weren’t writing a check for the parks and recreation department in your city so you could chase a ball around a few nights a week. This was the real deal. I never felt super-talented at anything, but still had to make a choice. I loved all of the things I had been involved in, but had always loved something else:



Having fun with equestrian program mascot Ace last winter.

I grew up in Troy, Michigan. No one around me rode but I talked about it all the time. I was known as the “crazy horse girl” at my school. I had horse binders and horse pencil cases. I carried a stuffed horse in my backpack from first until fifth grade and was teased relentlessly for it. Everyone assumed I rode, but I didn’t. It was a cruel joke. I begged my mom for lessons for eighteen years but the answer was always no.

When I was in high school, my grandmother was diagnosed with very advanced lymphoma and given a short time to live. She started chemotherapy; however, this made her start to lose not only hair, but also her mind. She reverted to a state where she thought all of us kids were years younger than we were and went on a relentless search to purchase a horse for me since that was all I talked about when I was little. She actually signed me up to take lessons a month before she died.

I still have the paper she signed, but I never got those lessons.

When I got to college, I saw a posting for the athletic requirements for the Albion College equestrian team. Athletic? Me?

But something made me go. It was at eight in the morning. I lackadisedly ran the mile and did everything required of me. Next, I went to the information meeting. I sat in the back. Girls said hello after a long summer. I heard snippets of their conversations.

“…I looked at that horse, but he was just too green…”

“…he was really loose but then I just had to work with him…”

“…I’m not sure which horse to bring to campus this year…”

I had no idea what they were saying. I felt sick to my stomach, as if I had switched bodies with someone and was taking their AP Calculus exam. The girls were decked out in riding gear and one thing was for sure – I didn’t belong. I shifted in my seat.

Get up, get up, get up, I urged myself. But I couldn’t. This was all I had ever wanted. I listened to the meeting. It was about an hour. They said a lot of things I didn’t understand and said I had to buy a lot of things that I didn’t know where to get or how much they cost.

I felt like crying.

After the meeting, I went to the front where the instructors were and cleared my throat: “Hi…I…uh…I’ve never ridden before and I…”

The women in front of me turned around. I thought they wouldn’t even notice me. I felt like I was showing up for the Olympic swim qualifier in a bathing suit with bright pink ruffles wearing an over-sized rubber duck floatie. According to one woman, however, it was “open season” on people like me.

The hardest spot for a team to fill? The beginner rider spot.

She begged me to show up to tryouts, even if I didn’t join. So I did. But that wasn’t easy, either. When I walked in, I stuck out like a PETA member at a bullfight. I could almost hear the record scratch. I was wearing the most equestrian outfit that I had: blue jeans and a pair of cowboy boots from Urban Outfitters. It looked like a last minute Halloween costume. But I was there!

It felt like everyone was looking at me, eleven of them decked out in these khaki stretchy pants and polos. (I owned a polo – I never thought to wear it!) Most sat in groups, but I didn’t know anyone. When it got to my turn, I didn’t even know how to get on the horse. I heaved myself over and sat there.

Now what?

“Walk on,” the instructor said.

You expect me to know how to make this big brute move?

Of course I didn’t. It wouldn’t budge. I’m sure it was a perfectly good horse, but I just sat there like an idiot. Other girls were walking around. One was doing a faster walk thing where the horses legs rotated from side to side in perfect rhythm.

“I don’t…I can’t…”

I wanted to jump off and run away. My helmet felt too tight and I feared I might collapse. A different instructor stood next to me and asked what I knew how to do.

Basically just this, I told her. I know how to sit while the horse is standing and not fall off. How cool is that?

She urged the horse forward. I was walking on a horse and everyone was watching. There were about twenty people in the gallery and it felt like they all had their noses to the glass watching me. They probably weren’t, but the heat of the moment always makes you think that.

The instructor told me to keep the walk “forward”…so faster…? I gave the horse a kick to the ribs. It was very forward. It was the faster walk thing where the horses legs rotated from side to side.

Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce.

I did about five seconds of that and then gave up. The other girls had done the faster running thing that’s not quite a racehorse running but I didn’t think I was ready for that. I got off the horse, ready to be written off.

There’s been a mistake, I expected one of them to say. There was probably another Melanie – perfect hair, teeth, been riding since she was in the womb – that they had confused me with. There’s no way they would just let some random person off of the street onto their team! But to my surprise, I was picked.

Next came riding bootcamp. I discovered muscles in my body I didn’t know I had – and they all hurt. I was listening to the horse. Listening to the instructor. Learning, learning, learning. For ten years, I had been pointing my toes in dance. Now I wasn’t supposed to do that? You can’t just un-learn ten years of classical ballet!

My first year of showing was a total bust. I tend to put myself down a lot, but it’s not exaggerating to say I got last place at every show. A girl I befriended my first year showed at the highest level and won a blue ribbon every single time. I congratulated my team members when they did well and consoled them when they did poorly. My positive attitude paid off and I had fun. Being on the team was a blast – I loved the road trips, the late nights, the people.

Everyone is better than you, I thought to myself sometimes. What a motivator! There’s nowhere to go but up.

There were hundreds of people (mostly girls) competing at shows. And every single one of them knew how to ride better than me. As I got older, more people joined my team. All of the newcomers were more experienced than me – which, I will admit, made me feel bad. But it was short-lived, because when I told them I had never been on a horse until college, they commended my bravery.

I told them my tryout story. That took guts, they said. And I started to believe it.

I’m a senior now and consider myself to be an advanced beginner rider. I can walk the walk, trot the trot, canter the canter…and jump…little, miniscule little speed bumps. (I’m not so great at that yet.) But what a blessing riding has been!

In the past four years, I met incredible friends, gained great self-awareness, and had wonderful opportunities. I’m hooked on horses and they will always remain a part of my life. I’ll probably always feel a little behind, but then I wonder…how behind would I feel if I was in my senior year of college and hadn’t tried it at all? How much regret would I have?

When I was in grade school, I was teased for liking horses too much and now at college I’m sometimes made fun of for not knowing enough. (What does “above the bit” mean again?) I guess I just can’t win.

But for now, doing my best is enough. I am happy anytime during my pas de deux (dance for two – see? I know stuff!) and this dancer just got a new partner – a 1,500 pound hairy beast that has bad days, gets scared at practically nothing, and cannot speak my language.

Bring it on. Nothing scares me anymore.

Melanie Fodera is a senior at Albion College who will graduate in May with a degree in communications. She is also a valued member of the IHSA hunt seat team.