As an equestrian team coach at Alfred University, Kristen Kovatch’s existence is a whirlwind of nonstop activity. This week, she guides us through the lead-up to the team’s first show (which they totally rocked, btw).
Our primary business at the Alfred University equestrian center is teaching students horsemanship (western, hunt seat, dressage, driving, whatever—you name, we teach it, seemingly). Our secondary business is fielding varsity equestrian teams in western and hunt seat. Our third job is putting on horse shows, usually in conjunction with our equestrian teams. This week marked the first show of the long, long season ahead—welcome to a week in the life of a home-team horse show coach.
Entries are due today, and miraculously they have all come in on time. Being the only western school with an indoor, we host all of the shows, meaning we also do all of the paperwork for every show and manage everything from the entries, horse draw and judges to the concession stand and prizes. Most of our competition is club teams, and they sometimes have a hard time getting their schools to cooperate in a timely fashion regarding IHSA paperwork, so one school is still waiting for the official certifications that will even allow them to compete. My compatriot, the Old Cowboy and head coach, is poring over the entries and their AQHA records, trying to get a handle on the competition and how much our team might have to step up to maintain our control of the region. Due to poor timing, it’s also our students’ fall break so none of them are here to work horses. They won’t come back until Tuesday, so it’s up to me to try to get as many horses out as possible so they’re not lunatics by Saturday. I teach one lesson to a student who stayed on campus over break, and she looks pretty darn good—definitely ready to horse show.
Some of the students are coming back early from break, so I can delegate some horses to be ridden. All in all between myself and my early-return riders we get about 10 horses worked. The Old Cowboy is still hoarding the entry lists so I can’t get started on the program (this is a debate/argument that will be repeated for every single horse show for the rest of the season.) I continue to badger him in my free time to get the horse list organized so I can start getting the horse handlers and warm-up riders lined up—my students are not allowed to ride a horse on the day of the show if they are entered, and since we enter the entire team I have to rely on volunteers from the hunt seat and high school teams.
The students are back full-time, so we are back into a regular practice schedule. The Old Cowboy covers the 6:30 AM practices (he normally gets up at 4:00 anyway so it’s not much of a hardship for him.) I use the afternoon to work a horse, organize my saddle list and finally start work on the program, a 10-page monstrosity involving a lot of busy work. Thank goodness for Pandora Internet Radio, keeping horse show organizers sane. The holdout school waiting on its organizational paperwork is still waiting and we’re starting to get nervous for them as show day is only three days away.
The beginnings of last-minute panic are starting to settle in. I power through more of the program, get the rider/handler list lined up for the most part, and start updating the points standings based on last year’s carryovers (returning riders keep the points they earned in the previous year except for the Open level.) I’m torn between deciding if everything is coming together or I’m completely and totally behind. Fortunately, the team is riding the best they’ve ever ridden at afternoon practice and I’m looking forward to showing these students.
I get to the barn before dawn to watch about 30 seconds of reining practice before returning to the computer to get more pre-show paperwork done. By the early afternoon, my beginner walk-joggers are hard at work in the arena for their last practice and I am frantically finishing horse assignments, volunteer lists, organizing the food tab for the concession stand, and wondering when I will get to sit on an actual horse again (a foolish question since I will be schooling three horses the next morning.) Later in the afternoon, the team arrives for the traditional pre-show barn makeover and I assign tasks right and left—cleaning the wash stalls, cobwebbing the aisles, setting youth saddles in the back of the arena, organizing ribbons, mopping the team rooms, braiding up horses’ tails and clipping muzzles and bridle paths. My captain and a work detail are in the arena sweeping the walls and squeegee-ing the mirrors. I get the last of the computer work done, rejoicing when the FedEx truck arrives with the last team’s paperwork just in the nick of time. After a brief team bonding session trying to learn the Gangnam Style dance, I send everyone home for a good night’s rest, singing Allstar Weekend’s “Not Your Birthday” to myself and deciding that I’ll celebrate my birthday some other time.
As usual, I slept poorly, waking every few hours with some new worry in my head. I sit bolt upright somewhere around 2 AM, knowing in my heart that the morning work crew is going to turn out all of my western horses and they will be filthy and lame. Naturally, by the time the sun comes up, I know this will not happen and drive to the barn in the dawn’s early light. The team starts to arrive half an hour later along with the warm-up riders and the barn becomes a beehive as horses are unbraided, spit-shined and saddled for warm-ups. I ride two rail horses, supervise the others, and then spend an enjoyable 20 minutes loping the reiners with my coworkers. The teams, including my own, are pressed to the glass of the viewing room, watching the horses go around and taking their own notes of observation.
After the draw is done by the morning judge, I ascend the stairs to the team room for a quick motivational speech and to announce the horses—in IHSA shows, the riders get on a “draw horse” with no prep time, the idea being that the best horsemen will win. Overnight, the hunt seat team decorated the place, hanging gold streamers, personalized posters and even decorating our potted shrub with Christmas lights. The place is about a thousand degrees and the air is thick with hairspray, the floor carpeted with glitter. Everyone looks fantastic.
One of our multitalented riders sings the national anthem and the show begins with the open reining. From this point on, the day is a blur of standing hungrily at the rail, watching my amazing team continue to rock the show. We win both the AM and PM shows decisively, buying ourselves a 15-point lead over the next highest team, naming numerous first places and high-point riders. The pride and satisfaction I feel as I watch months of hard work culminate in a handful of rides can’t be described.
Later, after blowing out the candles on my and The Old Cowboy’s surprise birthday cake (you guys and your trick candles really aren’t that funny) I thank my team for the ultimate birthday gift in two championship shows. I hope this sets the tone for the rest of the season—one way or another, it’s going to be a heck of a ride.
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.