In My Boots: Building the team

In addition to her mad writing and riding skills, Kristen Kovatch is the coach of Alfred University’s IHSA western team. This week team tryouts are being held, and Kristen is already looking forward to another year of challenges and, hopefully, rewards.

From Kristen:

It’s the first week of September. While that probably resonates a little bit differently with every reader, for anyone else in the world of intercollegiate equestrian (put your hands up, people!) it means one thing: tryout time.

For my relatively small school without an equine major or a massive training program, we attract a lot of equestrian students who aspire to ride on our team. The hunt seat team typically attracts equitation riders as well as hunters; every now and then an eventer or dressage rider crops up among the ranks. On the western side of things, however, our population is truly eclectic.

We get barrel racers. We get team penners. We get Congress-level horsemanship riders, local 4H kids, graduates from our own IEA program. We get a lot of crossover riders from the hunt seat team who try out because “western looks easy.” My job as coach is to choose the best of the best of these and make them into a team.

Usually, we do end up with a little of everything, and the blend of experiences and backgrounds provides an enriching environment for everyone to learn from each other. After all, it’s a horsemanship team: my riders are judged on how well they can ride their draw mount rather than how well they can prepare their own horse for the show ring. A good horseman in any specific discipline of western is a good horseman anywhere.

The world of western contains a hundred different subtleties and variations. A reined cowhorse rider will ride completely differently from a reiner. A pleasure rider will ride differently from a horsemanship rider. Barrel racers provide a unique challenge as do the hunter-jumpers. The easiest ones to work with, which may or may not come as a surprise, are the dressage riders.

When I think about what the next few weeks will entail (turning all of these riders into horsemen as well as horsemanship riders) it’s a little overwhelming, but highly exciting. The world of western is vast and there’s something to learn every day. (Imagine my mix of terror and joy when Wylie told me I was the “weekly Western columnist”—how could I pick a single topic every week from the incredibly varied realm of all things western? Talk about overwhelming—there’s too many subjects to choose from.)

At least I’ve got a crack crew of staff to help me out: my head coach is none other than Harry Hurd, one of the longest AQHA judges’ cardholders in the history of the association; he’s judged every kind of show imaginable and has more experience than any of us will ever realize (he even judged the first ever Versatility Ranch Horse World Championships.)

And I’ve got my captains, my two student leaders who liaise between the team and the coaches. I’ve got a great pair with a wonderful dynamic between the two of them. I observed their unique positions at our organizational meeting the other night: my senior captain sat at a table in a professional-looking sweater, taking neat and organized notes and providing helpful insights to the new riders when necessary. My junior captain was working the whiteboard, his back to us, giving us plenty of time to read his T-shirt which proudly proclaimed “Women want me, bulls fear me.” Surprisingly, they make a great team, the horsemanship queen and the rodeo cowboy. I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to be another great year.

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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