Unbridled commitment

by Jenny He, Sports Reporter
photos contributed by Gabriella Zaff

For junior Gabriella Zaff, there is more to horseback riding than meets the eye. 

“What makes this sport so special is that it really is about finding the binding between the rider and the horse,” she said.

Zaff has been an avid rider since she was six years old. She competes in the Eventing category, which consists of three components: dressage, a precise routine, cross country, a long-distance race, and showjumping. Every section, nevertheless, requires a strong connection with her horse, Patrick, she said. 

“There’s a lot of figuring out how to communicate with an animal that is 1,000 pounds and could easily crush you,” Zaff said.

Sophomore Kat Connor said that she has been riding for seven years, and now practices at least three days a week. She said she has to constantly focus on her posture and her surroundings when on the track. 

“It’s really hard to keep a lot of things in your mind,” Connor said. “You have to keep your heels down, and you have to look up.”

Even more than the sport’s concentration on the rider themselves, Connor said that equestrianism demands attention to the horse.  

“Sometimes [the horses will] want to do the opposite of what you’re asking them to,” she said. 

Beyond the challenges of working with the horse, horseback riding is a sport with a difficult schedule. Zaff said that the scarcity of available barns in the area limits the time available to practice. 

“Because [equestrianism] requires so much land and there’s not much of that around, my barn is 55 minutes away, so we can’t go out every day of the week,” Zaff said. 

Nevertheless, the years of dedication pay off, Connor said. 

“It’s fun to see your progress,” she said. “Especially during jumping … The jumps get higher, and of course, get more complicated.” 

The achievements become all the more rewarding when they are shared, Zaff said. 

“The goals are important, not just because it’s a little thing that you check off, but because you know that you did it with a horse,” Zaff said. 

Outside of the barn, horseback riding carries misconceptions, like the “horse girl” stereotype, which was popularized by social media trends. Zaff said the stereotype stigmatizes the sport and mocks female riders. 

“[The stereotypes] are untrue for most of the population, and they also create a divide within the horse community as everyone’s trying to address it in a different way,” she said.

The term “horse girl” is commonly used to mock female equestrians for overly obsessive behavior. It, however, inaccurately generalizes a large group of diverse individuals, Connor said. 

“It’s funny, because nobody that I know at the barn acts like that,” she said. 

Within the equestrian community, Zaff said there is a lack of diversity, and that the predominantly white membership of horseback riding can make racial minorities feel excluded. 

“The sport is very good at … not being welcoming, which can very easily push away marginalized groups,” said Zaff. 

However, as a result of  the recent movements for racial justice, Zaff said that the community has taken more actions to increase representation. 

“Recently, there’ve been a lot of efforts to actually start focusing on the voices that should have been getting focused for quite a while,” she said. 

Despite the challenges that come with the sport, Zaff said that all horseback riders unite through their passion for the sport. 

“Because [equestrians] love the horses, they’re dedicated to making it work. That’s what allows them to overcome those kinds of challenges,” said Zaff. “We’re all there for the same thing: to compete with the horse, to bond with the horse, [and] to get to know other people.”