I met you when I was just a little six-year-old girl, at the same time I was introduced to gymnastics and dance and all of the other sports my parents made me try. But something about you was different. The size of a horse or smell of a barn are usually reason enough for people to turn their nose at the sport, but for some reason my six-year-old self stuck to you like hay in mud.

As I look back now, the thing that I realize was different was that you needed me as much as I needed you. It didn’t matter what else was going on in my life; the horses could never get their own food and water, or clean their own stalls, or train and ride themselves. It was a blessing and a curse (some early mornings it felt more so the latter), but you always needed to me to show up and do my part. From a very young age I learned the responsibility of other living things depending on me, and I know for a fact this discipline has overflowed into other areas of my life.

But like I said, I needed you too. I needed the barn as my place of escape when I was having a bad day. I needed that rush of adrenaline in my stomach the last minute before I stepped into the ring to compete. I needed the world to melt away just seconds later as I picked up a canter and headed towards the first jump. I needed the beautiful horses that taught me polish and technique just as much as I needed the bratty ones that would buck me off and toss me into jumps. I needed you to show me great people and bad ones alike, so that I could remember both when it was my turn to be a leader. While I wasn’t paying attention over the last 16 years, you built my character and taught me the value of blood, sweat and tears. I really needed that.

Another thing you gave me that I will never, ever be able to repay you for is my team. Growing up you were an individual sport, and this was good because you taught me to pour my love into the one teammate I had: the horse. But then I got to college, and the good got better. I was on a team with 65 horses and 65 other girls who loved those horses just as much as I did. We had to learn how to work towards our goals together, instead of just fending for ourselves. As a Georgia Bulldog, I grew a lot as a rider, but even more so as a human being. My teammates have made me a fundamentally more caring, selfless, and driven person. I wanted to be as successful as I possibly could be in every area of my life for them. For my coaches. For the horses. The rings that we won are great physical mementos of the time we spent together, but the memories I have with my team are worth more than I could ever explain.

So, Equestrian, I thank you. I thank you for giving me more than I ever could have hoped for. You gave me a place to learn and grow, and I know you give that same opportunity to so many girls out there. There were some days we spent together when I needed to just sit in a stall and cry, and there were other days when I would stand beaming with a championship ribbon on my bridle.

But mostly, there were the days in between that made me who I am today: an NCAA Woman of the Year Honoree. I bet if I went back and told my six-year-old self that, she wouldn’t believe it. Who I am today, though, is also simply and proudly a horse girl. Now that one she would definitely believe.

To read more letters from the NCAA Woman of the Year Top 30 honorees:
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