While perhaps best known for its English riding exploits, Ocala also has a booming Western scene. Last weekend it hosted the IHSA Semi-final Championships, which Kristen Kovatch attended as Alfred University’s western coach.
I normally don’t complain about chilly western New York springs, but after a three-day weekend in Ocala, the Sunshine State has never been more appealing. But I wasn’t spending my time at HITS or Live Oak (though we did all drool through the windows as we drove by). Instead, my weekend took place at the Ocala Equestrian Complex, coaching my equestrian team at the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Semi-final Championships.
While the English riding scene defines Ocala, the western world is no less developed: Off the main drag, there are dozens of western training barns. Between Dunnellon and Ocala, the neighborhood consists of hundreds of “ranchettes,” little five- or ten-acre spots with a couple of horses and pole barns. We stopped by our head coach’s winter home and spent a few moments relaxing under the pine trees while he regaled us with stories of the lively team sorting and cutting horse community and the time he sorted with Bruce Davidson (“A good hand,” he called him). On our way to the showgrounds we passed shop after shop selling western-specific tack and equipment. It’s been said about Ocala before, but everyone has horses down there.
At the show itself, we were treated to a wonderful selection of draw horses. For readers unfamiliar with the IHSA format, riders draw their mount from a pool of available horses and do not get any practice time on that horse before mounting and entering the show pen. We watch the horses school, take detailed notes based on our observations and glean as much information from the horse’s owner or rider as we can. I help my riders adjust their stirrups, offer my own advice, wish them luck and send them into the pen to show. The horses at this show came from a wide range of donors all across Florida and beyond; they included reliable old troopers for the beginner classes all the way to polished show horses from the breed circuits.
We battled through six levels of western horsemanship and reining against seven other teams. Like any other horse show, we had some moments of brilliance and some mistakes. The lead for the team competition bounced from team to team–going into the very last class of the day, the standings were still up in the air with the coveted top three places reachable by five teams, including mine. My reliable and versatile captain was our last rider of the day, putting in one of the best rides of his life and earning second place, clinching our reserve-championship title and securing our bid for the National Championships in May. We are now counted among the nine best teams in the nation–quite an honor for a little school in New York.
And for regular readers of this column, do you remember the hunter-turned-reiner of “The Crossover Challenge”? She won her class for the team on Sunday morning, laying down an absolutely beautiful ride on one of the nice local reining horses. This rider has been to Ocala before, hanging out ringside at the big hunter shows, waiting for her chance to grace the arena herself. Ironic, perhaps, that her first Ocala show took place in a reining pen. As we stood by the side of the ring after she finished her final spin, cheering her home, I saw her grinning as she patted the neck of her catch ride, and I knew that truly it didn’t matter. All that mattered was this: this moment, this ride, this team.
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 anymore. 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.