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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Road to Rolex

A Day in the Life of a Working Student

While horseback riding may sometimes be called the sport of kings, I can promise you from first-hand experience that the equestrian world’s working students certainly aren’t living like royalty. Five a.m. wake-up calls, 12-hour work days and intense physical labor are all parts of the daily routine for students like Catharina  Ardakani, who is working for established two-star event rider Liz Lund this winter in Ocala, Florida.

“If you’re not a morning person, this isn’t the job for you. You have to get used to being tired all the time, and having very little personal space. We have five girls living in a college-sized apartment!” Ardakani shared, laughing. “And the food, I haven’t seen a vegetable in probably two weeks!”

On an average day, Cat described waking up before the sunrise to feed, turn the horses out and muck stalls. The rest of the day is typically spent working the 13 horses that are part of Liz’s barn. Some days, Cat and Liz take a few horses over to the racetrack at Horse Shows in the Sun (known as “HITS”) to do conditioning work. This is generally about 45 minutes of trotting, cantering and galloping, mainly targeting the horses’ (and riders’!) cardiovascular fitness. Much like any professional athlete, close attention is paid to the horses’ heart rate, both at work and at rest, to gauge their degree of fitness. This is especially important since after the cross-country phase in competition, the riders have just 10 minutes to steady their horses’ heart rates back to an acceptable level, otherwise the vets will not approve the horse and rider to continue on to show jumping the next day.

In addition to fitness work, Liz and Cat take advantage of the multitude of accomplished equestrians in Ocala by taking lessons with a variety of riders. Schooling dressage, cross-country or show-jumping is also part of the weekly regime. Still, intensive training aside, Cat remarked that one of her favorite activities down here is the evening hacks down the road.

“Nothing beats just walking the horses along the lane , chatting and soaking up the sun and the beautiful views. It’s still so surreal to be down here, surrounded by palm trees and riding in a T-shirt, in the middle of February…very different from back home in Minnesota!”

Despite the challenges of being a working student, it’s considered by most eventers to be a necessary stepping stone in an aspiring rider’s journey to competing at the upper levels. Plus, at the end of the day, it’s fun and incredibly rewarding.

“You learn so much about the horse industry, you get to ride tons of different horses and you meets lots of great people. It’s awesome, a bit like summer camp!” Cat said, reflecting on the benefits of being a working student. “After the day’s work is done, I usually go out to dinner with the other students and on weekends we will go out line dancing at the bar.”

Like many working students, Cat dreams of competing at the upper levels herself, and maybe even qualifying for Rolex one day. By finding herself down here in Ocala for the winter, she is certainly on the right track.

Kenzie Wilkinson is writing this series when she isn’t working from sunup to sundown in Florida. If you have any questions for her, contact sports@theaggie.org.

Photos by Catherine Wilkinson.

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