May, who first began riding lessons at the age of 7, has blossomed into quite the showman over the past 11 years. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case is evident by his recent victory at the 2013 Interscholastic Equestrian Association Western National Finals in Oklahoma City, Okla., earlier this month.
After placing third in the individual Varsity Open Horsemanship and Varsity Open Reining events, May went on to claim the title of overall Champion Western Rider, an honor he shared with one other rider.
“I was very shocked that I won. God has blessed me and given me this talent and I couldn’t do any of this without him,” May commented. “There’s so many people who have helped me throughout the years that it’s hard to mention them all.”
It was May’s mother Karen, who first brought him out to her friend LeAnne Stinnett’s Dogwood Farms for riding lessons and the foundations of horse care.
“There was a spark when I went to take lessons. I really enjoyed it and the encouragement from my first riding instructor, Emily Barker, helped me get more into it,” May explained. “I got into showing thanks to David Ellis. He actually called me and asked me to show one of his horses I’d never shown before. I went to his house the night before the show, practiced, then showed the horse the next day.”
After May and his parents found and purchased his first "real" show horse, Bailey David Rogers began pushing Ryan to become a better showman. A few years later, while showing at a Harriman Quarter Horse show, trainer Tom Green noticed how hard May was trying and asked his father, David May, if he could work with him.
This was a blessing because out of all of the trainers in the Southeast, Tom Green Pleasure Horses was only about 10 miles from their home.
May is quite well rounded, competing and showing in various Western Riding events as well as Hunt Seat.
“The horsemanship is judged on your equitation, your form. The Western Pleasure that I show in and reining for the National Reining Horse Association is on the horse. When I show for Nationals it’s on you, because you don’t bring your own horse,” May described. “They provide the horses and you draw one, then go show it. They give you the pattern to run, you get to watch the horse be schooled by a trainer, and then you hop on and go. All you get is a description of the horse on paper. It doesn’t bother me, because I ride anything. I have actually shown in every single discipline and have been open rider for a while now. Open is the highest level you can achieve.”
Showing a horse is quite meticulous, and every little movement and motion must be planned accordingly. One of May’s pet peeves is when people say that riding isn’t a sport, because to him it clearly is.
“Everything is supposed to be very smooth, and that’s where it comes into your place as a rider. You have to make sure that you set the horse up correctly — you’re picking their shoulder up correctly, keeping their body aligned, their hip aligned, you’ve got to make sure that horse is in line with the direction they’re going so that they can do the maneuver successfully. There’s a really fine line [between success and] messing up. It’s a lot to think about.”
May trains with Kristine Snellenburg in Hunt Seat and she was his Hunt Seat coach on the Ocoee Equestrian Team. The young man credits her with being instrumental in his development and quick success.
“I went to every trainer that I possibly could, trying to find any outlet or anyone who could help me get better. Kristine was the main one that I always rode with, though. For Hunt Seat I would do any of the torture that they threw at me to get better,” the horseman said. “I feel that if you aren’t out there doing everything you can that you will never improve and be good. If I had to go ride without stirrups for an hour posting (a way of riding) I would do it with no complaints. It gives you more balance and strength in your legs, so by the time you’ve got your feet back in the stirrups everything should be set.”
It seems that no matter what disciplines he shows under, Western will always hold a special place in May’s heart. His coach on the Ocoee Equestrian Team for Western was Denise Wright.
“I’m more confident in Western riding. When I go out in Western it’s like being at home compared to being in another country — I go in there without a lick of fear. I was undefeated all year in Western. Whereas Hunt Seat, I was not as comfortable and went in nervous, but I was still one of the top riders."
May placed in the top 3 at regionals on one of the most difficult horses.
The world of show horses is filled with big names and big pocketbooks, with most using their money to buy what May refers to as “push-button horses,” or horses that can do almost anything. Where May differs from the majority of his competition is that he has learned, competed on, and won with horses whose retail values are nowhere near the hundreds of thousands of dollars some folks invest in.
"Most of the riders in reining I was showing against show in the NRHA, and I’ve never owned a reining horse. I had to go in there and compete against the ones who show all the time and still won. That’s the coolest thing — I didn't have everything handed to me like some of the other riders and I appreciate that."
“Some people have $250,000 to $300,000 horses. My parents would think I was crazy if I asked for that. I wouldn't even think of asking for that expensive of a horse. In the long run, it’s been really good. I’m more appreciative because of how hard I’ve had to work for it. If I hadn’t had to work for it I probably would’ve been burnt out a long time ago. I think it made me a lot better and makes me strive to keep getting better.”
Over the course of a year, May estimates that he participates in anywhere from 30 to 40 different shows, which can take him out on the road for upwards of a month at a time. The young man feels his being home schooled greatly helped with his schedule, as it gave him flexibility with his schoolwork.
While most would find it hard to keep a balanced work and social life, May credits having great friends who help him maintain a normal life amidst all of the competition.
Like most people his age, May is now considering what route he wants his life to take.
“I could see myself being a trainer. I’m also planning on working under my dad some, with the family construction company.”
Currently, May has more competition and shows on the horizon. He plans to take a 3-year-old black mare named She’s Not Available, or Annie as she’s referred to in everyday life to the National Snaffle Bit Association World Championships in Tulsa, Okla., next month.
“Annie just absolutely wants to please you, and is right there ready to do her job. For the most part, she naturally wanted to do everything for us,” May explained. “Mares will either lay their life down for you or they won't work for you, it’s one or the other. Most of the time, they take care of you, though. They are more sensitive and more careful. You couldn’t get Annie to kick or flip over on you.”
Besides the NSBA Championships in August, May has plans to show Annie at the All American Quarter Horse Congress in Ohio in October, under the guidance of Jason English Show Horses. The show is one of the largest in the country.
The Western Riding savant, who will be in next month’s issue of Sports Illustrated, is all business when it comes down to show time. Prior to competition May ensures that his appearance and dress are immaculate and that his horse is ready to go. Once out in the arena, May’s perfectionist side kicks into overdrive.
“I’m always thinking about making sure that everything is done right. In horsemanship, it’s so meticulous. If your hand is a half an inch off and the judges see it from the side angle, it looks bad. Everything has to be sharp, squared and perfect,” May described. I’m actually too big of a perfectionist. If my horse isn’t performing exactly how I want, I have to fix it. In reality, it can be better if you sit back and ride it out. The trainer in me wants to be doing corrections.”
“The horse and I are dance partners; you’ve got to be in sync with each other. If you don’t have an athletic horse, you’re done. If you don’t have a rider who’s athletic and can sit up there, you’re done. It’s definitely a duo thing.”
Ultimately, it is the horses that most impress May.
“I like the willingness of the horses — they can do all these different disciplines. Their athleticism is unbelievable. If you have a bad day and you go to the barn you aren’t having a bad day anymore. The horses all have a different personality.”