In My Boots: OK is OK

Kristen Kovatch returns from last week’s Interscholastic Equestrian Association National Championships with a white ribbon for her team and a renewed sense of what it means to be a coach.

From Kristen:

“I love working with the IEA—every day is either the best or the worst day ever, and it’s interesting to work with that.”

I’ve uttered that description on multiple occasions in talking about my IEA (Interscholastic Equestrian Association) team, comprised of local middle and high school students. Having declared myself avidly as not being a kid person, I am always surprised with how much I enjoy working with these riders ranging from age twelve to eighteen. My observation always seemed true—working with that fairly volatile age group, each individual rider is either having the best or worst day of their lives and my job is to focus that energy towards developing horsemanship skills. Having this team to work with has improved not only my own riding but my developing teaching skills as well.

Confidence was high until the day we moved into the show grounds at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds in conjunction with the NRHA Derby—this was certainly the strongest team I had produced out of two years working with both IEA and IHSA (intercollegiate equestrian). As we hung up our little banner for Alfred University and I glanced to our neighbors in the stands, I flashbacked to last year when we were outclassed at Nationals and left having earned maybe a handful of points and a few ribbons scattered across my team. What was I thinking? We were totally out of our element, again.

Competition commenced on Thursday and I was immediately impressed with the quality of the horses we had to work with—the IEA and the NRHA had teamed up to produce a stellar draw list of “real deal” reiners as well as solid horsemanship mounts. Even more impressive were my reining riders who held their own in competition. Coach morale was high after the morning of reining.

In the afternoon, I watched mutely from the rail as one of my riders went careening around the arena on a green snaffle bit horse. Suddenly I was surrounded by older and more experienced coaches, encouraging me to call a reride—in the IEA, a coach can request a reride if the horse appears blatantly unsafe. I stood there at the end of the arena, debating with myself if this was really an opportunity escalating to the point where I would need to put my foot down… and while I debated, the class concluded and the judges elected to retest my rider on a new horse. She managed to earn a fifth but I will always wonder if she could have been higher had I acted faster and gotten her a new mount. Coach morale was low going into the last classes of the day.

In one class I was blessed/cursed with three qualified riders—the mounting pen was a scene of chaos as I darted from horse to horse trying to get all three prepped and ready to go. Once the dust settled, one of my classiest and most talented riders was walking dazed across the arena to the award presenters to claim her national championship title—my first national champion on any of my teams. At the end of the day, my individual competitors had earned three sevenths, three fifths, two fourths, two thirds and one championship. Coach morale was high.

The second day kicked off the team competition. My riders were a little less focused, a little less confident—the middle school did not earn any points at all and the high school team was sitting in eighth with nothing but two fifths and a sixth to our name. One class remained for the high school team, not to be held until Saturday morning.

Our chances rested on the shoulders of our top open rider. He had already had a busy week at Nationals, earning a seventh in individual horsemanship, a fifth in team horsemanship, and a fourth in individual reining which had earned him a slot in the Interscholastic Championship. This class was an added invitational from the NRHA who invited the top four youth NRHA riders from 2011 to compete against the top four IEA riders. As my boy walked into the arena to begin his pattern, the announcer read his bio to the crowd, including a thank you to his parents and his coach. After spending so much time investing in this rider, hearing my name called over the loudspeaker in the coliseum arena made me smile and, confession, tears to my eyes. He rode to eighth place and we had a great discussion after his performance about the ins and outs of riding the top level of reining horse.

So as my senior laid down the final ride of his IEA career, I was both riding high and reserved and thoughtful. Somehow these kids had become the center of my world over the past season. Suddenly it wasn’t even about teaching them to read their horse and change their riding, teaching them the best horsemanship they could learn. It was only about seeing them succeed, feel pride in their achievements, know they could hold their own and be confident in themselves. Coaching is so vastly different from strictly training in that regard—it’s not about pairing horses and riders or training horses to be their best, but about developing the riders and giving them the tools they need to succeed.

Ultimately, with a second-place finish in the team reining, the Alfred IEA team finished fourth in the nation—my personal best as a coach for any of my teams. I stood in the coliseum arena where we had seen so many of the industry’s champions stand, cheesing a smile for the photographers, a crisp white ribbon in my hands as I brushed shoulders with my students, so proud to be their coach. Suddenly I remembered my description of the team—“it’s always the best or worst day of their lives.” Ultimately, I don’t think I was talking about my team. I think I was talking about me.

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