There’s a girl looking at me from the backs of horses in photographs, and I scarcely recognize her. I know that girl is me, from before IHSA, before college, but she is so different from who I am now. Now I am a college senior and I sit here trying to make sense of things. I wondered why I cried into my pillow when this final season was cancelled. I wondered why this felt like the worst thing in the world. I wondered why in those photographs, that girl seemed so strange.
I found the answer to all of these questions was the same. It was because of my journey and who the IHSA made me. Before the IHSA, I was the weird, quiet kid in school with few friends. I suffered from terrible anxiety and experiences in and out of the saddle often terrified me. Simply put, I was troubled but I told myself when I got to college, I should give the team a try. Maybe things would be different, I wondered. And they were.
I ended up at Gettysburg College, a tiny, liberal arts school out in Pennsylvania. There, on day one, I showed up to the team’s first meeting. Riding had been an individual sport as far as I’d known, but when I walked in that room, I noticed the power of a team. Everyone smiled. They supported each other. When someone said they’d never sat on a horse before, team members clapped and said, “yes, wonderful!” And when I spoke, my teammates listened to me. I was never afraid to be myself in that meeting room or at the barn.
In my coach Janis Groomes, I found a role model. I had a jumper background and was new to this equitation business, and I acted rather silly to hide some of the fear I felt. But she was kind. She would explain things a hundred times if needed until I understood. She would push me. I never realized it at the time, because suddenly I had a newfound confidence and was pushing myself, too. She had my back when times were tough. My hours at her barn were the best hours of the day.
Abigail Roos, Noa Leibson, Coach Janis Groomes, Samantha Pfeffer at the Grier School.
Photo courtesy Noa Leibson
There we were, a team that loved and lived for each other. There she was, our coach that never wavered. And there was IHSA, which cemented these new, bold versions of ourselves.
The Gettysburg College Equestrian Team celebrating High point at Wilson College.
Photo courtesy Noa Leibson
It was strange to be so absorbed and so in love with a process, a sport, that seemed so irrational. We would wake up at 3 a.m., jump courses on a random horse, find dreadful hours at night to finally finish our homework, and still merrily call upon each other for extra adventures, exams or not. We should have been more terrified, but we weren’t. We weren’t, because somewhere along the way, this became our lives. This changed us. This made us laugh and cry into each other’s arms. It made us march through snow or pouring rain just to be with each other and on our beloved lesson horses. We walked into the rings with racing hearts, and cheered whether our teammates won or lost. We took part in this collegiate showing, one of the bravest things we’ve ever done, and we were smiling during it. Our love conquered fear.
It was IHSA that made my laughter genuine. It was IHSA that showed me some of the best people in the world. It was IHSA that made me work harder than I’ve known. To be the best rider I could be. To be fitter, bolder and to be true to myself because that is what my teammates had me do. It was what IHSA did for all of us.
Gettysburg College Equestrian Team tailgate headed by Jacques Bergier at Briarwood.
Photo Courtesy Noa Leibson
That girl in the photographs hasn’t had her life changed yet. She isn’t who I am now. Now, I am loud. I feel as though I can sit on any horse. The darkness in my mind feels like only a memory. I had enough beloved friends to be able to serve my team as their captain. The girl in the photographs had no idea that just down the road, everything would be worth it. It was.
All I have to say is thank you. Thank you, Gettysburg Equestrian Team. Thank you, Janis. Thank you, IHSA. And for anyone who has not yet gotten to college, please, ride IHSA. It may change your life, as it did mine.
*Portions of this post were originally written by Noa Leibson for 'An Open Letter to the Collegiate Equestrians' for The Plaid Horse, published March 19, 2020