In My Boots: It takes a village

Behind every great rider is a great teacher (or, more likely, a few great teachers). Kristen Kovatch takes Horse Nation along to a clinic with top reined cowhorse rider  Josh Veal.

From Kristen:

Photos by Maite Hurd.

“You’ve got eight legs and three brains all running…it’s gonna get a little crazy.” –Josh Veal

Reined cowhorse has a lot of similarities to my perception of eventing: The dressage part is great, but eventers make their reputations on the cross-country field. In reined cowhorse, the dry work (the reining pattern) makes up half the score, but the reason we’re all in this thing is really just to work a cow, to pit ourselves and the mettle of our horses against the agility and wiliness of a lone calf. Cattle are herd animals—it’s much easier to move one hundred head than to move one. Turn one cow loose in an arena with a horse and rider staring it down and things start to get a little western.

It can be a dangerous game. One little stumble from horse or cow can mean a tangle of animals and rider in the dirt. A misjudged fence run can end with the cow under or over a horse, taking out the rider or clotheslining his mount’s legs right out from under him. There’s an awful lot of variables that make every single run unique. There’s no rush quite like it—running down the fence all-out stride-for-stride with a cow, then turning it back to run up the pen all-out in the other direction.

My season kickoff started last Friday night with a clinic by Josh Veal, one of the top East Coast reined cowhorse riders. I was seeking advice from a professional who could get me started going down the fence safely—I had courted death a few years ago by showing down the fence with very little professional guidance, just running my horse hard and hoping for the best. This time around, with an extraordinarily talented mare in my hands, I wanted to do things right.

Josh, though not a practiced clinician, is gifted with great insight into how cattle think and react as well as the ability to break chaos down into manageable pieces, coaching riders one step at a time until everyone feels confident. There are great photos of me and my horse stride-for-stride with a cow, a giant grin on my face as I laugh out loud that we’re actually doing this, running all-out next to an essentially-wild animal while keeping some semblance of control. Josh’s coaching not only bolstered a few flaws in my run but gave me the confidence to know that I can actually put together a fence run. He was also a big admirer of my little horse—a sure way to girl’s heart.

Everyone is doing what they love, except for maybe the cow. Riding the clinic with Josh Veal.

Kristen and Playgirl circle the cow, the final and most difficult part of a fence run. Riding the clinic with Josh Veal.

During the clinic, I noticed the judge for the weekend had arrived and was watching the proceedings from the box. He called me over to ask how my horse was bred and what I was planning on entering in the show. I told him my hopes of trying the fence class if all went well in the clinic. He leaned back in his chair and grinned. “God hates a coward.” I made up my mind then and there that we were going down the fence the next day.

My confidence was shaken slightly when the next day dawned cool and rainy. I really did not fancy being crushed in the mud by a rogue cow, but I owed it to myself and my horse to try. As I slowly saddled up, my typically un-cuddly horse suddenly wheeled around and put her face up to mine, breathing my breath, her eyes intense. She was ready to rock.

Playgirl came to me about a year ago, a green and frightened cutting-broke mare with the bloodlines to be a champion. Her lineage includes High Brow Cat, who can be found in the pedigree of almost every winning cutting horse, as well as Docs Merada, a legendary cowhorse in his own time. If my mentor Harry Hurd hadn’t told me about her uncanny ability on a cow, however, I was going to question his senses—she was green in every sense of the word. On our first ride, I asked her to lope and she bolted cross-firing and crashed into the wall. She had no idea how to keep herself together—she was used to loping around for a circle or two and going right into the herd to work cattle. I took on this project for Harry with a good deal of trepidation, wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into.

After a long and sometimes-frustrating year, Playgirl is coming into her own. Her cow work, if anything, has gotten better, and she has a handle on her that impresses anyone who saw her right off the trailer a year ago. I built on her natural abilities to teach her to stop, spin and change leads.

Of course, I’m not alone in this venture. My mentor Harry has been there for every step of the journey, offering advice (most of which concluded with “ride more.”) I can’t do justice to the assistance we’ve received from Denny Wilcox, a reining and cowhorse trainer that I also call a friend. Josh Veal and David Phillips, both respected cow horse professionals, have offered extraordinarily helpful nuggets of advice. Every judge we’ve showed under has showered us with compliments as well as tips to work on for next time.

The greatest gift we received happened a few weeks ago. I came into the office and found Harry standing at the desk, brandishing a pen at me. “Sign this.” I was looking down at a transfer form. “She’s all yours.”

We entered the pen on Saturday and put down a decent reining pattern. At the conclusion, we paused for a breath; I shoved my feet further into the stirrups—she can turn right out from under me if I’m not prepared. We took a few steps towards the cattle pen where Harry was waiting at the ready and gave him a single nod. He opened the chute and out leapt our cow.

The specifics of the run, of course, are a blur to me now. I remember Josh Veal standing at the fence, shouting advice—when to step up, when the cow was ready to go down the fence, when to back down and collect. The sensations that stick with me instead are the cadence of Playgirl’s gallop, the lift in her back as she collected, sat down deep and circled our cow, the whoop from the rest of the crowd as the whistle blew to signal the completion of our run. We were the only pair in the arena but we did not ride alone.

After a successful run on show day.

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

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