At a Crossroads: Four Riders on Deciding Their Futures in the Sport

by Cheryl Witty-Castillo /

Published on

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any young riders want to make it to the top. We dream of riding professionally, representing our country at Nations Cups and even the Olympics. But how do we respond when things don’t go as planned? Riding is, to put it mildly (ha!), an expensive and dangerous sport. Financial situations change; serious injuries happen. We sat down with four remarkable young women to talk about how they responded when life didn’t go as expected. 

As they share their stories, one thing is clear: there’s no right or wrong answer. When life throws a curveball, everyone has to make the choices that are best for them. So whether we decide to continue competing, to keep horses in our lives as a hobby, or to move on from riding completely and pursue other passions, the lessons we’ve learned from horses and the relationships we’ve built in the equestrian community will stay with us, no matter what path we choose. 

Caroline Martin 

I grew up with horses, and I was blessed that my parents supported me 100%; I could take as many lessons as I needed to be the best rider I possibly could be. In high school, I immersed myself in Buck Davidson’s program. When I was 21, I started training with Leslie Law. My only focus was to be the best.

Then, at 23, I was on my own. 

My parents told me I either needed to support myself and my horses financially, or I needed to go to college. I could sell my horses and the farm and pick something else to do with the rest of my life. But, I really enjoy waking up every day and working with horses. I like the physical, manual labor. I couldn’t imagine myself in an office all day.

So, I literally sat down and called every person I knew and asked for a job. I was blessed that Emil Spadone at Redfield Farm answered my call. He’s a neighbor of mine in Ocala, so I asked if I could ride or do anything to make some money while I figured things out. He said I could come over and get on a few horses, and it turned into a relationship I could never have dreamed of. I started working for him, selling his horses. He’s been an amazing mentor for me, and things have just grown from there. 

When I made the decision not to quit riding, I knew it meant I had to be all in. Life is so different for me now. I’m up late working on sales, editing videos and working on projects…I used to be in bed by 7:00! And then I’m awake early to be with the horses. I’m still competing and doing the five stars. All I do is work!

But the truth is, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. 

I’ve definitely had doubts over whether things will work out. Actually, I’m still not 100% convinced! Sometimes I feel terrified.

But despite the stress, I’m happier than ever. I have purpose, I’ve found my path in life. These past couple years, with all the opportunities and success, I felt lost. I was a leading lady rider, and I wasn’t nearly as content as I am right now.

Back in December, I would’ve loved for someone to call me and say, hey I’ll pay your bills and buy you whatever horse you want. Now, I couldn’t be more grateful that didn’t happen. Working has taught me that I have abilities I didn’t know I had. I always think, with everything, that there’s another way to do something that no one else is doing. For example, I sell horses through Instagram, so I can target my own age group like no one else. I’m a millennial…for better or worse! We do updates and videos on social media. I really cater to my clients. I think these things differentiate us from everyone else, and I am proud of that.

Of course I want to keep winning and selling as many as high performance horses as possible. But more importantly, I want to keep reinvesting the money…and reinvesting myself! We all need to think outside the box. When we’re young, we want to be professional riders. But this is a massive industry, and you don’t have to be stuck on this one idea of just riding professionally to keep horses in your life or to be happy.

Related: I Have One Horse, No Kids, Make $130k a Year, and Still Don't Feel Financially Stable

Haley Carspecken

I am 19 and have been riding since I was 6. I just started my first year of college, but I actually wasn’t planning on going back to school at all, because I enjoyed being a working student and wanted to be a professional rider.

Unfortunately, this summer I slipped on a pool step and dislocated and fractured my kneecap and tore two ligaments in my knee.

So things kind of changed. It was my dream to ride five star events and go to Rolex and all that. I still want to at some point. But I’ve found a new desire in physical therapy…mostly because I’m in it right now. I go twice a week for my knee, and I really enjoy it. I ask the PT so many questions. I like seeing the progression, and I’d like to help others. It would be nice to be able to ask a human what hurts and them be able to tell you. You can’t ask a horse what hurts! 

I’m looking into being accepted into a program to study and then getting a job being a physical therapist after graduation. For a long time, I had the mindset that only riding professionally would make me happy. I never would’ve even thought I’d have the desire for something else until my knee happened.

Did it ever occur to just quit riding completely? Yeah, it did cross my mind. I was worried my knee wouldn’t heal and didn’t want to destroy my knee completely. It was pretty difficult the first month. I was waiting for surgery, feeling stagnant and couldn’t do anything. There were days when I didn’t get out of bed…my parents would bring me food. It just really sucked. But now I’m healing and excited about riding again sometime next year, I just don’t think I have the same goals anymore. This injury changed my life, honestly. 

Now I know you have to keep your options open and take school seriously.

Plans change, but ultimately I just love the people in this sport. I’ve made so many friends in the horse world. Horses are comforting to me, always will be. They’ve taught me work ethic and all the skills I have. Aside from time management and efficiency, I’ve learned how to deal with things that are out of my control. Horses get hurt, and you have to deal with it. I couldn’t control my own injury, but it happened. And I know I’ll be able to get through it, no matter what.

Kelley Hutchinson

I’m Irish, no question about that! I’m really lucky because I was born into a horsey family. So I grew up with horses as an inevitable part of my life. I’ve been so fortunate to have some super horses, and I’ve had the opportunity to ride for my country. 

I was shortlisted for the Irish pony team when I was 15, but I was unlucky in that I had a bad fall and broke my back and pelvis. When that happened, my parents gave me a reality check. This is a dangerous game, and I realized that I needed to have some college behind me so that if something does go wrong, I could go back and do something different. 

The question of quitting altogether came up, but I decided absolutely not. I was more angry than anything that I didn’t get to go compete, and it actually became a bigger push to get back, because I realized how much I wanted to be there. I was very fortunate to come back and ride and medal on a number of Irish young rider teams, even though it meant juggling school and riding.

I decided to study equine business in college, and that really solidified for me that there was only one road I wanted to follow: horses for life. 

I’m two years graduated now, and enjoying the business side. We do mainly the young horses because competing is so expensive for the high level. I would rather put my finances into resources and time into training the horses. Of course, it’s amazing to go to the big shows and win, but if I can have a horse and sell it to one of the top riders and they can win, for me, at this point, I get the same rush.

Of course it was hard balancing school and riding, but I don’t have regrets. Now that I’m in the “real world,” I feel like college has equipped me with knowledge that I otherwise wouldn’t have to deal with problems. And even though I’ve taken the time to get an education, I know that I ultimately want to stay in the horse world. 

To quit or not is always a tricky question. I have family in the business, so I’ve always had that understanding of how hard it is. I feel grateful for the grounding I’ve had, and the opportunity to try managing both school and riding, and now business and riding. But at the end of the day, no matter what you decide, I think you have to put yourself out there and jump at every opportunity. 

Morgan McCue

I always loved extreme animals. When I was little, I wanted a dolphin or a whale! Since that wasn’t going to happen, I thought horses were the next coolest option. I started taking lessons as a kid and loved it. I wanted to be the best up and coming young rider, and my long-term goal was the Olympics, just like everyone else I feel like!

I was competing at the intermediate level, and things just didn’t work out for me when I attempted to go advanced. I graduated high school and was an adult in my parents’ eyes. You know, it costs a lot of money to do this. I knew that my parents weren’t going to pay for this sport forever, and I didn’t want them to. 

I started thinking to myself, I want to live a life with guaranteed paycheck, a job that gives me the stability to have horses on the side. I didn’t know if I wanted to keep living this life of being pressured, worrying about money and being sad all the time. I was just very lonely and wondering why I kept putting more miles on my horses. It came to a point where my parents said, you either want to do this or you don’t.

So I made the decision to stop riding. And it felt like my whole world was ripped out from under me.

When I stopped riding, the depression really kicked in. My riding clothes and boots were packed away. I would walk outside to the barn and see no horses in the stalls. It was heartbreaking, like a ghost town. I always thought I would get to the top of the sport. I had so many people around me telling me I was a great rider, but that just wasn’t in the cards for me. 

Without riding, I didn’t know if I had a purpose in life. And that led me down a very dark road, to wondering if I wanted to live at all. I got in-patient treatment, and I just really had to pull myself together.

I had to understand that my life was not ending and find peace in having other work to do.

I got a job with a construction company, and I’m learning so many new things I thought I’d never learn. And it’s actually pretty fun. The more things you know how to do, the better. It can’t just be all riding all the time.

You know, I’ve realized I missed out on normal childhood stuff. I did too much, too young. When you’re not in normal school, when you’re constantly traveling to to compete, it can be hard to make friends. It was just me and a lot of horses. When I was 15, I had to act 21. When someone at work makes a throwback Thursday-type joke, I’m like, yeah, can’t relate. But I’m improving. I wake up excited to go to work, and I’m making friends.

I currently don’t ride at all. But I hope someday, when I’m financially stable, to buy a horse on my own. Maybe we’ll start over together.

Feature photo by Erin Gilmore for NoelleFloyd.com

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Written by Cheryl Witty-Castillo

Cheryl is a former competitive figure skater turned book nerd and equestrian sport junkie. She views the written word and photography as an intimate conversation with the power to both tell an individual's story and unite a community with a shared passion. When she isn't writing or teaching, Cheryl loves spending time at home with her babies and their various furry rescue pets and carnivorous plants.