Making My Way In the Horse World

An IHSA college student shares his challenging journey in the equine industry.
Matt Drohan and Centenary College’s Croft O.B. | © Nikki Ventresca

Coming out of the 2015 Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Nationals as a member of the Reserve Collegiate Cup Team last May, I gained not only friends and supporters but a sense of gratitude. While preparing for my upcoming sophomore year at Centenary College, I started to ponder how I’d gotten to such a great place.

I began my journey into the equine industry in seventh grade, volunteering at Seaside 4 Therapeutic Riding at Jamaica Bay Riding Academy in Brooklyn, New York. Then I became a trail guide there. From these experiences, my passion for horses grew, so three years later, I joined the resident Interscholastic Equestrian Association’s Metropolitan Equestrian Team as a Novice rider. Though I was raised in a single-parent household and didn’t have financial opportunities to devote to horses, I received a scholarship from MET and finished my IEA career in the Open division and as the team’s co-captain. 

In my final two years at Xaverian High School, I also participated in the College Preparatory Invitational in Wellington, Florida, first as a rider in my junior year and then as the horse-show manager assistant as a senior. After riding there, I was recruited by several colleges and universities and offered scholarships. This made the final decision of where to go quite difficult. I knew I wanted to make a go of a career in the equine industry. Which college would put me where I wanted to be in four years?

I decided on Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey, as the place to earn my undergraduate business degree and join its acclaimed IHSA team. The summer before I started, I found a working-student position with successful rider and course designer Eric Hasbrouck, whom I was introduced to by Connie Sawyer, a public relations specialist and CPI friend. The day after my high-school graduation, I flew to Spruce Meadows in Calgary where I groomed for Eric. When we returned to The Pavillion Farm in North Salem, New York, where Eric is head trainer, I took riding lessons and completed chores for the rest of the summer.

Then it was off to college. The Centenary College Equestrian Team is a family of 68. We have our ups and downs, but whether we lose or, hopefully, win, we’re always cheering for each other. We joke when we call our coaches, Heather Clark and Michael Dowling, “Mom and Dad,” but that’s how we view them at times. Parents care for you, push you and always catch you when you fall. Anthony DeSimone, who graduated last spring, captured my feelings for these coaches in his farewell: “They put their hearts into our team every single year—putting in countless hours to make successful not only the team but each individual. There is no way any of us can repay you for what you do for us.” It was especially great this year being part of the Reserve Collegiate Cup win with fellow freshmen Skylar Laakso and Shelby Keefe.

Through Centenary connections, I found a position grooming for Ireland’s Darragh Kenny at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington earlier this year during winter break. There I again experienced how a top show barn is run and expanded my network in the equine industry—and I’m looking forward to seeing my extended Irish family again at WEF next year!

With the knowledge I have gained from all of these experiences, I soon hope to begin a new chapter in my life—as a rider. I dream of one day competing at the top level of the sport. To that end, Lilly Johnson, a successful and dedicated groom for rider Shane Sweetnam, introduced me to Nikko Ritter, the assistant trainer at Peter Leone’s Lionshare Farm, in Greenwich, Connecticut. As a result, this summer I will be a working student there, riding several horses each day among other responsibilities and chores.

Throughout this journey, there have been many people who have helped and encouraged me, and I am extremely grateful. There also have been a few who have steered me away from this dream because of its challenges. But I hope my actions and successes one day will prove them wrong. When the time comes for me to reflect on my life and aspirations, I want to be able to say “I did it all.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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