Out of the Library, into the Saddle

I wrote this piece for the Cambridge Careers Service: https://unicamcareers.edublogs.org/2021/04/14/this-was-my-first-rodeo-alice-whaley-on-changing-environment-and-perspective/


From mental labour in the hallowed halls of Cambridge’s libraries, to manual labour in the sun-bleached dust of yards, farms, and ranches all over the world; I’ve undertaken a lifestyle change that has been challenging, liberating, and edifying in ways I never imagined.


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When I graduated from Trinity Hall in 2019, I was raring to go, ready to dive head-first into a career in radio and become some high-powered London producer before the decade was out. But, when I didn’t get the job I wanted, my world fell apart. I thought I was ‘getting behind’ on life.


Then, a different idea struck me: what if I worked outside? What if I gave my mind a rest and strengthened my body instead? I began training horses at a stable yard in Spain, a few hours from where I grew up. Far from the University Library, I spent sunstroked hours in the blazing heat, exercising horse after horse until my thighs were stiff and my fingers burned. I was far outside my comfort zone, attempting to use a skillset I didn’t have. At first I was embarrassed of my failings, but, slowly I realised nobody expected me to be a pro. As I got stronger, my body felt healthy and my mind felt clear, and even though I was exhausted, the open air made me feel good. I learnt to ask advice, accept hard criticism, and not give up. I gained the confidence to be bad at something, even though I was surrounded by experts. That confidence has enabled me enter job settings I’d never dreamed of, anywhere they’ll let me try.



Immersed in Spanish culture at the stable yard, I started a blog about rural life in Andalucia. A handful of friends read and enjoyed it, so I continued the project, relishing my newfound strength. I worked at a polo yard in Uruguay, and while I was there I met somebody who knew of a job in America. My journey went on like that, hopping between ranches and countries by chance meetings with strangers, sharing my story and hoping they knew someone who needed an extra pair of hands. It was daunting living so open-endedly, but I soon got used to it, and found a stable rhythm in the constant fluidity of my life. Now that I’m back in the UK, I’m not as worried by the instability of freelance writing as I would have been before, and months of practise pitching myself as a worker has made pitching my writing much easier.


After my second job in Uruguay, I worked on a rodeo stock ranch in Arkansas (looking after the horses that buck at rodeos), before moving to a cattle ranch in Colorado, and then Montana. In all these settings, I was a total newbie. Sure, I could ride a horse, but I didn’t know how to control five horses at once, like the South Americans do, or how to use a lasso like the cowboys. But, people were happy to share their skills with me, and, in doing so, they shared their stories. I learnt to shoot, to tool designs into leather, to milk cows and to wrestle calves for branding. None of these skills are remotely transferrable, and that’s the beauty of it. With new contexts come new sides of ourselves.



I was writing all the time, even when I felt like there was nothing to write about, and learnt to find interest in the smallest details. Then, one day at a Drive-In Rodeo, I was picked up by some local podcasters and a national TV network, and somehow my year away from my journalistic career turned out to be a stepping stone I never saw coming.


The lives of cowboys, polo players, packers, and ranchers are interesting far beyond aesthetics and traditions. I realised how much I enjoy hearing what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, and found that that’s what I want to write about, and what I want from a job in radio. Without doing any formal interviews, I learnt how to ask questions, and what to ask, and - more than anything - I learnt when it’s best to just listen.


So, a month’s work in a Spanish stable-yard became a year’s research into cultures of horsemanship around the world, which I’m writing up into my first book. I never expected to work outside long-term, but I’ve grown to love it, and since Covid grounded me in the UK, I’ve been working in horse racing yards for another book.


The job market after University is a tough place, and, with that in mind, perhaps the hardest thing I learnt to do was also the most useful: I learnt to fail. I can’t count the number of times I’ve missed the shooting target, I’ve fallen off my horse, and I’ve lost the bulls I was supposed to be herding. Dozens of ranches said they couldn’t have me, and since then, dozens of magazines have said the same. But, occasionally I hit the target, and occasionally the magazines say yes. The strength in my arms will wane in time, but my strength-of-mind is here to stay.


Click to read Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, Ranching, Rodeo, Racing


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