In My Boots: The Learning Journey

Kristen Kovatch coached her team to 7th place at IHSA Nationals, but a season’s worth of sportsmanship and growth–for students and coach alike–meant more than a purple ribbon.

From Kristen:

My IHSA season is finally over (I’d like to think the other sports coaches on campus give us a little respect for the fact that our season is three times as long as any other, but who knows). A long year of practices and horse shows culminated in a team qualification for the National Championships, our second trip in team history. I rode on the point team as an undergraduate for our first trip, helping to earn sixth place overall. This time, coaching a nationally-ranked team for the first time, I managed to help my head coach get the team to seventh place.

I’m satisfied with this placing—for now. We brought a very green point team to Raleigh, North Carolina, for the show: three freshman and no previous experience at Nationals for anyone. My students are all excellent riders, of course, which is how they earned their way there. We all learned a lot more than we thought we would in a single horse show. We rode some complicated horses: some of my riders rose to the occasion and some simply didn’t get their mounts figured out by the end of the class. We made some mistakes, forgetting to get a horse set up all the way or completely misreading the horse we were riding. Ultimately, however, the most important lesson my riders learned was good sportsmanship.

It’s a hard lesson to learn on the national scene. I am glad I have riders who take the show pen very seriously; at the same time these riders have a hard time accepting that they don’t always win. Sure, there were some calls I didn’t agree with; there were some placings that were questionable. In the end, as we all know, the judges’ decision is what it is, whether or not we always agree with it. When coaching a collegiate team, I need to constantly remind myself that the most important thing is the learning experience. We don’t need to win to be successful.

As I stood ringside watching the last class of the entire four-day show side by side with one of my friends in the western equine world, I watched one of my riders have a beautiful trip on a spur-stop horse, a type of ride we are not accustomed to. She took the owner’s advice with an open mind and let herself adapt to her draw, learning more in that twenty minutes in the show pen than she had possibly learned all year.

I realized in that moment that the ultimate purpose of the IHSA experience is not to simply crank out winning rider after winning rider. It’s not always even about churning out great horsemen, though that’s a highly beneficial side effect. The IHSA helps teach a little maturity, a little more pride in oneself, a little more responsibility for actions. I watched my students all grow up a little bit this past weekend. I grew up a little more this past weekend. This learning journey won’t end any time soon.

I was speaking with a campus professor at a barbeque and listening to him praising my equestrian students and how great they were to have in class. We’re showing the rest of campus one student at a time that having an enormous and expensive equestrian program is truly beneficial. Anyone who has worked with horses realizes the “side effects” of being an equestrian: personal responsibility. Maturity. Perseverance. Work ethic. All of these things not only make good horsemen, but good students and valuable young adults. I am happy to get the opportunity to work with these students, not only to help them develop but also myself. I’m proud of my seventh-place team. We’ve got a lot more Nationals left in us to back down now.

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 She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.

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