Kristen Kovatch takes us inside the world of equine academia, having recently attended the National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics national conference.
For anyone who ever feels as though the equine world is already a small and insular community, try visiting the subculture of equine academics, the professors and professionals responsible for educating the next generation of horsemen and horsewomen and bringing them into the industry. While I don’t have the hard statistics at my disposal, there are only a few hundred colleges at most in the United States with equestrian programs of any sort, let alone full facilities, teams and full-time faculty. The National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics formed to bring these scattered programs together to collaborate, share knowledge and celebrate successes and growth. Members are invited to attend an annual conference, held this year in June in Bozeman, Montana.
I walked into the first conference sessions tentatively—this was my first year attending the conference and I was trying to prepare myself to be completely over my head. I knew that most of the attending colleges were equine science programs, designed to create industry professionals in the management field. Our program at Alfred University is an equestrian studies minor, covering a little bit of everything at individual students’ discretion from management to nutrition to teaching to hands-on riding and driving. We seek to foster lifelong equestrians but not necessarily professionals. I didn’t know anyone in the room and hadn’t heard of a lot of the schools. I was a newcomer to the field as well as to the association, just finishing up my second year of teaching and coaching western riding. Essentially, I did not feel like I belonged in that room with the leaders of teaching equine studies.
As I browsed the research posters, I was approached again and again by the professors and directors of equine programs all over the country, who introduced themselves and were more than happy to talk about their research and share ideas. The conference sessions included topics ranging from how well students were being prepared to enter the equine industry (unsurprisingly, every field wants to see good communication, initiative and leadership) to how to use our role as equine educators to teach not only enrolled students but the general public about equine welfare.
Even more beneficial to me in addition to the formal sessions were the one-on-one discussions I had with other conference attendees. We swapped stories, shared our experiences, made suggestions and laughed a lot. I particularly enjoyed an hour I spent with another young professional who got her job as a college riding instructor right after graduating herself—our first years on the job sounded almost identical.
Throughout the week I was impressed by the fact that despite being a big ol’ gathering of horse people, there was none of the normal cattiness that one might expect in a big ol’ gathering of horse people. It also lacked the highbrow snobbery that sometimes occurs in academic conventions. Instead, despite being a blend of horse people AND academics, everyone just genuinely wanted to help each other—even though we’re in competition for a small group of students.
I was also impressed with the respect I received from my fellow conference attendees—not that I expected to be treated poorly, just not necessarily that I would have anything to say worth listening to. Most of these people had been in the equine industry for decades, first as professional horsepeople making names for themselves as trainers, teachers or breeders, and then as the builders and shapers of some of the top equestrian programs in the nation. On the other hand, I got my job through a combination of luck and timing, being available right after college graduation to fill in for the western teacher expecting a baby. When she elected not to return, I received the job full-time. I don’t have any other professional experience. I don’t even have any big names I’ve trained under on my resume. And yet here I was, offering my opinion in discussions.
But maybe that’s the point—after all, the whole idea behind what we’re doing in teaching the next generation is giving them the ability to keep learning. It’s a fact in the horse industry that we will always be “replaced” by the next up-and-coming name, just like it’s a fact that the old names will always be respected. It’s pure foolishness to ignore a thought just because you don’t recognize the person who said it, just like it would be foolish for our small society of equine academics not to stick together and support each other, old timers and newcomers alike. We’re all in this thing together, after all.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.