by Brian Bennett
Senior SUNY Geneseo equestrian athlete Ashley Olin readily acknowledges her sport’s most random, yet influential aspect—the arbitrary assignment of the horse that competitors ride at shows.
Since Geneseo equestrian members are trained to be able to control any horse, they’ll likewise ride different horses in their lessons. So it was not unusual during a November 2012 team practice for Olin, an experienced rider, to be given a horse not yet finished with all of its training. But while working over fences, her unseasoned mount led to an accident that carried long-term implications.
“Sometimes we’re on a horse for us to learn, sometimes we’re working on the training of an inexperienced horse,” explains Olin. “It was my day to help teach the horse to jump. We got to a jump and he balked. I pushed him over, which made for a rough landing. My momentum carried me forward onto his neck, which in turn startled him and caused him to bolt. I was basically catapulted off the horse.”
Olin recalled that Coach Kim Sanford knew immediately that she had a serious injury. The barn manager took her to a Rochester hospital and stayed overnight with her. Olin’s mother traveled from her hometown of Pleasantville, N.Y. and joined her the next day. The diagnosis was that Olin had broken her right humerus, the large bone between the elbow and the shoulder, in three places. The complex damage necessitated her transfer to Strong Memorial Hospital for surgery, which led to further delays. The injury took place on a Tuesday and the operation wasn’t done until Saturday, in which surgeons inserted a metal plate and several screws to repair the damage.
The injury obviously ended up impacting much greater periods of her time. Considerable physical therapy was necessary to help her regain strength and range of motion. A good part of her rehabilitation was with Geneseo athletic trainers Jeremie Stearns and Sharon West and Olin was in the Merritt Fieldhouse training room three-to-four times a week at first. But it was the mental discomfort she felt that she recalls well above the physical pain.
“I was upset because I was losing ground from a riding standpoint and also felt bad about not being able to show for the team and contribute points,” Olin states. “I also came to realize that I was down because I missed riding four times a week.”
Riding horses is an activity that had been a constant part of her life since age eight. Olin sampled a good number of other sports while growing up—golf and competitive skiing in particular—but found that she didn’t have the same passion she felt with riding. So when looking at colleges, she only considered schools that had an equestrian program. Olin knew then-Geneseo student and equestrian open competitor Ryan Lefkowitz ’13, who was very positive about her experiences with Coach Sanford and encouraged Olin to check out the school.
Olin, an English major with a Spanish minor, was a consistent show member her first year and the accident occurred after just the first show of her sophomore year. She was unable to resume riding until March 2013 and quickly found that the mental aspect of returning would be much more challenging than the physical.
“I realized that I had been so lucky for so long,” said Olin. “I had fallen before but never been seriously hurt. The accident made me understand the risks of riding and that I’m not invincible. Horses are like little children— 1,000-pound children—who will test their limits. Riding gets dangerous when you don’t have the necessary confidence to fully control the horse.”
The horse can sense when fear has made a rider timid and Sanford also quickly picked up on the issues that Olin was facing. The two spent a lot of time talking about the issues outside of practice.
“I found myself so under-confident and it was traumatic for me—I would find myself shaking,” she remembers. “I was embarrassed in lessons with other team members because I was struggling so much. Finally, one day Coach told me, ‘there’s a difference between frustrated and scared—and you’re scared.’”
Olin admitted that Sanford was right and despite the frustration the revelation brought, the understanding gave coach and rider a new starting point and a different strategy.
“I hadn’t been able to acknowledge how afraid I was and now I was upset about being afraid,” said Olin. “But Coach told me it was a normal reaction, as I had suffered a serious injury. Furthermore, she told me ‘I can work with scared, but not if you’re unwilling.’”
Olin was indeed willing, as she has always taken great pride in her riding abilities. The process became one in which Sanford worked to put her in the right situation and on the right horses to slowly rebuild her confidence. Left unstated was the idea that she would return.
“Everyone—including my parents—understood that I would continue riding,” Olin said. “In equestrian and in anything else I do, I need to push myself past where I am comfortable. My teammates all understood I was trying to push past something scary and were incredibly supportive and encouraging. They played a big role in my ability to return.”
The restoration of her confidence took time, however. Olin only rode at a couple of shows her junior year and admits she had still not fully conquered her fears. The injury realistically cost her a season-and-a-half of her collegiate riding career.
The team’s schedule for her senior year was at least in her favor, as Geneseo opened with a show at home on Oct. 25. Sanford helped to further build Olin’s confidence by taking advantage of one of the benefits of hosting. In the week leading up to the show, she had Olin ride the handful of horses on which she would most likely compete.
“Our horses are the ones used when we host and we choose what horses will be used in what classes. So while the actual horse assignment is by random draw, I got to practice that week on the horses that would be used in my draw,” explains Olin.
Regardless of the advantage, a first place in her Novice over Fences (jumping) and a third in Novice Flat (non-jumping) were an impressive start to the season. But more important to Olin was her result the next day. The equestrian schedule is a series of eight shows among the 11 teams competing in the same Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) region and zone. Shows are held on Saturdays and Sundays of the same weekend and so the Geneseo riders traveled to a show on Sunday, Oct. 26.
Olin’s strong showing had put her within reach of a couple of important goals. Points earned by riders for their finishes carry over from season to season. Despite her long absence from riding, Olin was within reach of “pointing out” of the Novice level, which would move her up into the second-highest of the six riding levels. She could also qualify for the season-ending regional competition.
“I was chosen to show in Novice Fences and since it was at Cazenovia, I was riding an unfamiliar horse, so I concentrated primarily on cleanly completing the ride,” detailed Olin. “So when the judge’s scores were announced, I was surprised to hear my name as the winner. That felt really good.”
Olin accomplished her two immediate goals and has since been competing at the Intermediate level, over higher jumps and against tougher competition. After the holiday break, the Knights’ equestrian team returns in 2015 with two February shows, which lead up to the regional competition. Olin wants to continue to get physically stronger and hopes her performance at regionals will be good enough to move her up into subsequent zone or even national competition.
“Equestrian is unique in sports in that it’s meant to get harder,” said Olin. “Because of the random nature of what horse you draw, we are trained by Coach Sanford to ride every horse the same way in order to get the same result. She teaches us to be very technical in our approach to riding and do things that every horse will respond to.”
The impact of the fall remains with her, but Olin is more confident now due to the efforts of Sanford and the support of her teammates.
“I don’t know if that little bit of fear that remains will ever go away,” she said. “And it’s not just me—my dad comes to every horse show and I’m sure he blinks every time I go over a jump.”
Of course, Olin’s story is not complete without knowing if she got back on and jumped the horse that she fell from. Without prompting, she is quick to note that she did. The circumstances were perhaps fittingly in the random fashion inherent to equestrian.
“Coach forgot which horse it was, so in a lesson she assigned me to ride him. She saw me hesitate, which made her remember,” said Olin. “But I had to do it at some point. So I just jumped around a little course with him. It was something I wanted for myself.”
Brian Bennett is director of design and publications and has worked at the college since 1985. He joined the staff of the athletic department this past August.