5 Job Search Lessons I Learned From Horseback Riding

What horseback riding taught me about the job search.


You approach the jump, a small “x” made from wooden poles set up on the other side of the arena.

Mind racing, you run through a checklist of everything you need to make it over that obstacle. Heels down, jumping position ready, reins gripped at the right length, calves applying enough pressure to convince the beast beneath you to continue forward.

As you approach the jump, your heart beats and you check your pace. How many strides until you reach it? Do you need to adjust your pace, pull back on the reins and add in an extra step to make the ride smooth?

There’s a lot more that goes into horseback riding than people think. Sure, the horse is the one doing the physical stuff like jumping or spinning around barrels, but making it all look good is the job of the rider.

There are a lot of things you can learn from this sport and those lessons can be applied to all sorts of different aspects of your life.

Here are five job search lessons I learned from horseback riding—and how they can help you.

  • You have to make yourself known

I was about 10 years old when I started horseback riding and rode until I was around 16 or 17. During that time, I sometimes found myself looking to earn a little extra cash (for a soda or some chips from the vending machine just outside the stalls).

The good news was that there were quite a few ways to earn a couple bucks at the barn—exercise someone’s horse, clean their tack, or muck out some stalls.

The problem was, these jobs weren’t explicitly advertised. If you wanted to work, there were two options. First, you could ask around (which meant talking to the older “horse girls” who were pretty intimidating) or you could make a name for yourself around the barn.

I only went for a riding lesson once a week, so my reputation at the stables was pretty, well… non-existent. This made it a lot harder for me to get these jobs. Also, everyone seems a lot more intimidating when you’re not around them very often. That meant I was pretty scared to ask some of the “regulars” if I could help out for a few dollars.

My friends, on the other hand, were at the barn every day and had no problem asking around for work. Just by hanging around the stables all the time, they were familiar and comfortable in that setting. They became “barn girls.” Naturally, when someone needed something done, they were the first to know.

Surprisingly, this same phenomenon exists in the “real world.” Building a personal brand, introducing and surrounding yourself with people who work in your industry, and being assertive in the job search are all things that will help you land a gig. When there’s a job opening, you want people to think of you. If they don’t know who you are, they can’t do that.

Get your name out there. If you’re into programming, make sure you’re working on projects and sharing your code on GitHub. If you’re a writer, freelance or start your own blog. Work on getting published in your school’s newspaper or literary magazine. Start showing off what you can do in your field.

Find out when events are being held with people who are in your industry. Do some research on who’s going to be at the event. Figure out who you want to talk to and write down some questions you’d like to ask them. Start getting your name out there in your field.

It can seem really terrifying, but this recent graduate set his mind to it and was eventually called when a job position opened up in his desired industry.

  • If you fall, get right back on that horse

Have you ever fallen off a horse? If you haven’t, let me tell you, it hurts. Bad. There were times when the mare I was riding refused to go over a jump and threw me over her neck onto the sandy floor of the arena. As I lay on my back with the wind knocked out of me, I did NOT want to get back on. Even after my riding instructor offered to buy me a Mountain Dew to get my sugar levels up, I was not too excited about jumping back into that saddle.

The thing is, I didn’t have a choice. I’d paid for my lesson and it was going to last the full hour; I was going to try again and again until I got over that jump.

During the job search, you may not be slammed into the hard packed ground of a riding arena, but rejection from employers can feel just as painful. It’s important to be able to take the hit, stand back up, dust yourself off, and try again.

[Editor’s note: if you need some tips on how to deal with rejection in the job search, check out this post.]

Even more important is your ability to learn from your past attempts. What stopped you from getting that job or over that jump the last time you tried?

Don’t repeat your mistakes.

While riding, I would try to figure out what had gone wrong. Were my heels lifted? Did I apply too little pressure before the jump? When I tried again, I would make changes to my approach.

In the job search, I do something similar. I try to figure out what stopped me from getting a call back the first time. Does the company I’m applying for use an applicant tracking system and I didn’t use enough keywords in my résumé? Did I have a spelling error in my cover letter? Maybe I should try contacting the hiring manager at the company directly.

  • There’s going to be work you don’t like

I really enjoyed riding but I didn’t enjoy the parts that came before and after. I hated saddling the horses and wrapping their legs before the ride. I didn’t enjoy picking their hooves afterwards. It’s not that these tasks were particularly strenuous; they were just a bit tedious and you had to make sure that you got everything just right.

Still, it’s not possible to ride without a saddle and it’s important to clean the horses’ hooves and wrap their legs for their health. These are necessary parts of the process. And even though I didn’t like doing them, I always had to make sure to do a good job. Sloppy work didn’t pan out well. Failing to place the saddle in the right part of the blanket or tighten the girth enough would result in me slipping off the horse while riding. The wraps for their legs had to be wound a certain way otherwise the velcro wouldn’t connect.

When applying to jobs, you’re going to have to do things that feel a bit tedious and you’re going to have to be attentive to them. Every time you submit a résumé or cover letter, you have to make sure that they’re targeted toward the specific company you’re applying for. Then you’re going to want to make sure that you’ve proofread every version of your application a couple times before sending it out.

This part of the job search can feel really, really annoying, but it’s totally necessary. No employer wants to read a generic cover letter or find a grammatical error in your résumé.

  • Appearance matters

In riding competitions, you have to dress the part. Judges are not only looking at your riding skills, but also how you present yourself. In English, dressage, and jumping shows, you have to make sure your britches are clean, your boots polished, and that your clean, white collared shirt is tucked in with a brown belt. Since I lived in Hawai’i, there were certain horse shows that would allow you to wear this uniform without the formal jacket component because of the heat. But most of the time you were required to wear a dark buttoned jacket as well.

Even during Western shows (a much more casual style of riding), there was a dress code.

Now, this may seem crazy. Why would the judges care about the way you look when this is a riding competition?! Shouldn’t they just be looking at how the competitors are riding? But the thing is, whether it makes sense or not, they ARE looking at how you dress from the toe of your boot to top of your braided hair.

The same thing goes for interviews. Sure, the hiring managers have called you in because they’ve seen potential on your résumé, but that doesn’t mean you can look however you like. Your appearance matters. Make sure you dress and present yourself professionally.

If possible, figure out what people wear to the office and dress a step up above that. If you want a few more examples you can always check out our Pinterest board all about workplace style.

  • Learn where you fit

A couple of years into riding, I realized that I wasn’t happy focusing on the English style. Truthfully, the pressure of jumps and riding requirements were making me miserable. Still, it was difficult for me to admit this.

After a lot of internal struggling, I was finally able to let my instructor know that I wanted to focus on the Western style of riding instead.

Finding your fit in the workforce is just as important. You may think you know what you want to do with the rest of your life, but remember, sometimes you’re wrong about your dream job. Other times you may be in the right industry but at the wrong company. Either way, it’s important for you to find where you fit.

Start figuring out what appeals to you in a job. What are some things you can’t live with… or without? Check out this post about what recent graduate Deirdre Quirk realized was important after starting her first “real job.”

Homework time! You may not have ever ridden a horse, but you can still learn from my experiences. When starting your job search, keep these thoughts in mind. You have to put yourself out there. Start building a name for yourself, a personal brand in your industry. Interact with professionals, join in discussions. Understand that there will be parts of your job search (and even your job) that you won’t necessarily enjoy but that are totally necessary. Keep an eye on your appearance. And learn where you fit. Make a list for yourself. What are you really looking for in a job or workplace?


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