In My Boots: In the driver’s seat
On paper, Kristen Kovatch is a trainer and coach of Alfred University’s western equestrian team. In reality, however, this “cowgirl” wears many hats. Here’s the story of her latest endeavor…
My official job title is “western teacher/trainer” with the part-time addition of “western coach.” As to be expected, there are about a thousand little things that are not in the job title that make up my days (including things like “horse hauler,” “cat wrangler,” “social media manager,” “scaler of the loft ladder,” etc.) There’s also one big thing—or two big things, really, if we’re actually counting.
Meet Rocky and Randy (Rocky is closest to the camera; Randy is on his left.) These guys make up the Alfred University driving team, serving not only as teachers for our Draft Driving I and II classes (yes, those are legit gym classes, and they are very popular!) but as equine ambassadors all over the village as well as the surrounding community. They’re Belgian geldings, weighing in around a ton each and standing between 17 and 18 hands.
I took over teaching the class about a year ago, applying the knowledge I had learned as an undergraduate to teaching new students the beauty of working with draft horses. I am aided in teaching by the lovely young lady sitting to my right, Kaitlyn, who has owned and driven draft horses her entire life. We don’t just teach the students, however—we also put in some serious miles with the boys. In the past year, we did a nearby town’s Christmas parade, bringing Santa to the tree-lighting ceremony, as well as an event during campus orientation and free wagon rides at the local farmers’ market. Our biggest and most unique event to date, however, was Homecoming.
In theory, the idea was simple—we’d be bringing in the Athletic Hall of Fame nominees at halftime, trotting across the new turf playing field and depositing our passengers at the fifty-yard line. The logistics of the event, of course, turned out to be much more complicated, the least of which was how on earth our two horses were going to handle trotting onto a playing field in front of a DIII-sized crowd making lots of noise.
With our 10-passenger wagon being about as agile as a minivan, I took a tour of the stadium on foot first to get an idea of our course: from the Main Street of the village of Alfred, we turned right and descended a paved road to the stadium gates, crossing over a floating metal bridge that made all sorts of lovely and creative noises, then cut a sharp left around a set of pylons under the stadium bleachers and continued on under the seating for about 40 yards before breaking back out to the edge of the playing field. This was gonna be interesting.
We made several practice runs, virtually shutting down Alfred’s Main Street on two separate occasions (sorry, everyone, my horses can only trot so fast!). One of these runs involved banging our way across the creaking, banging metal bridge in the pouring rain as volunteers from the athletic department jumped up and down on the bleachers and set off airhorns, cheering for the Saxons as my horses flicked their ears and trotted on. We were about as ready as we were going to be.
Game day dawned cold and rainy as we brought Rocky and Randy up from pasture and commenced to scrubbing their white socks. Kaitlyn got to work on braiding their manes and tails, adding festive ribbons in the school colors of purple and gold. We harnessed up with the shined-up show equipment and hitched up, the skies mercifully having cleared. (I threw a Baker rug over our laps for an extra layer of warmth regardless.) It was time to go.
Half an hour later, we were trotting down Main Street in our full regalia, toggle chains ringing with every stride, the boys’ hoofbeats echoing off houses and shopfronts as residents and patrons came running to the doors to see what all the commotion was about. As we turned off to head to the stadium, I could hear the rumble of the crowd and realized that nothing we had done could truly prepare us for the sound of the Homecoming football game.
As we descended to the field, the crowd in full roar, thundering its feet on the metal bleachers as the Alfred Saxons received a kickoff, Rocky and Randy pricked their ears and lifted their heads—and stepped out bravely over the bridge, swinging hard to the left beneath the bleachers as the crowd screamed over a touchdown. My boys stood quietly as the Hall of Fame loaded (admittedly, Rocky gave the hairy eyeball to the field when the direction of play changed and two teams’ worth of football players crashed their way closer and closer about 10 feet to our right.) For the first time, an equestrian was being inducted into the Hall of Fame and we were thrilled to meet her, about as thrilled as she was to be introduced by a team of driving horses. In a way, this increased the pressure for the drive to go off absolutely perfectly—we were all representing the entire sport of horseback riding and equestrian activities.
Finally, it was our moment to shine and Rocky and Randy trotted out in step across the field, all eyes on them, heads held high, knowing somehow that they were on top of the world. The noise from the crowd may have gotten even louder, but I hardly knew anything else other than the sight of my horses’ ears, pricked forward in confidence, flickering back occasionally to catch my voice as I called encouragement and praise. The hours of prep time boiled down to this two-minute spotlight and my boys had earned every right to be there. I trotted off the field and wove my way back under the stands, thanking my equestrian students who lined the walkway holding back the crowds, their faces alight with pride in their team of most extraordinary horses. Rocky and Randy walked through this chaos as serene as could be, seeming to exude some new confidence as though they trotted through screaming crowds on a daily basis.
In the end, I needn’t have worried about them at all.
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 thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.
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