Interscholastic western team coach Kristen Kovatch’s students often find themselves up against some stiff–and well-funded–competition. Recently, her team beat the odds to reign victorious at Zone Championships.
In last week’s column “The Crundwell Conundrum ” I discussed how the future of the AQHA rests on the competitors and how it’s our job as horsemen to bring to the arena our own new set of standards; it’s up to us to put in the work and show that it really doesn’t have to be about money and status and politics. While my words hopefully inspired some, I did not anticipate that I would have the opportunity to put my own thoughts into actions so soon. Then I took my IEA (Interscholastic Equestrian Association) western team to its Zone Championships and managed to prove my point.
For readers unfamiliar with the IEA system, the program operates much like the IHSA for college teams: riders are sorted into levels based on their prior experience; at horse shows, riders get on a random draw horse and get no prep time before they head into the arena to show. The western division shows in reining and horsemanship. It’s a great preparatory program for collegiate riding—or really, for any young rider who wants to improve their overall horsemanship. It’s especially beneficial to students growing up who may not have the ability or funding to own a show horse as mounts are provided by the host team.
My team is sponsored by Alfred University, so we get to use the facility and the awesome stable full of horses. We are a mixed bunch: a few high schoolers from the paint/pinto circuits, some local kids with a backyard pony or two, lessoners who have never owned a horse, my mentor’s grandkids who have grown up with his training, and a sweet little girl who is the daughter of one of my coworkers in the student affairs office (she learned to ride at summer camp a year ago.) My charge is to take this band and teach them a few things about riding, sharing the wealth of information and horsepower that the university program has to offer with the local equestrian community which lacks show facilities, big-name trainers or expensive horses and breed showing. The county fair might be the biggest show most of these kids will ever do.
Within our region, some of our toughest competition traditionally comes from a private school with an extensive AQHA show team. The students bring their show horses to school and train there, hauling them on the weekends to the big breed shows where I understand they do quite well. They are always impeccably turned out with the latest showring fashions; their horses are beautiful and well-trained creatures probably worth more than my life.
I can’t speak for the other teams against whom we compete, but I know that my kids work hard. My college-student assistant coach and I only see them a few times a month, while some teams get to practice daily, so every hour has to count. I know some of the families might be making some pretty major sacrifices just to make sure the kids can pay for their entry fees, so I try to make my time with their children worth all the effort it takes to get them to the show pen
This weekend, my team went head-to-head with the other leading teams in the zone, contending for the top three slots which would buy us a berth at Nationals in Oklahoma City, in conjunction with the NRHA Derby. When the dust had settled at the end of the day, both my upper school and middle school teams were undenied champions, leading the day almost from beginning to end. My assistant coach and I stood side by side at the rail all day, watching with pride as our kids rode at their absolute best—and were justly rewarded. They held their own with the competition, becoming the standard to beat in every class.
I am so indescribably proud of my riders for more reasons than just winning the Zone and qualifying for Nationals (though I’m thrilled to death that I’ll get to hang out at the Derby!) They’ve proven that good horsemen can come from any background, however humble; they’ve proven that in fact it’s not a money game to get into horse showing. For the kids who cannot afford a fancy show horse to stand proudly in the arena holding that blue ribbon, smiling from ear to ear, means more to me than the titles and points. I’ve managed to show them that they too can be winners. They too can be nationally-ranked riders. We’ve set the bar at a completely different level now and I’m proud to help carry them on.
The Alfred University IEA Team with their year-end awards! (I am third from the left in the bottom row.)
Photo credit to Maite Hurd.
We were excited with our year-end results as upper school champion and middle school champion for total points accrued over the regular season.