In My Boots: Starting from the bottom

This week Kristen Kovatch, western coach for the Alfred University Equestrian Team, expresses her excitement about this year’s bumper crop of beginner walk-jog riders.

From Kristen:

Coaching an IHSA team has very few similarities to training clients for show. Rather than finding the perfect match of rider and horse and training both as team, we prepare riders to get on a horse they don’t know at all, take it out into the pen with no warm-up time and ride as though they’ve been working with that mount for months of preparation. In a team setting, the top-level open riders might seem like they are carrying the glory for their peers, but in reality I also need a strong core at every level, all the way down to my personal favorite: beginner walk-jog.

The IHSA rules are quite clear: beginner walk-joggers cannot have more than 24 weeks of riding lessons prior to registration. Upon registration, these riders only have two years of eligibility as a beginner before being moved automatically to a loping division. Since the walk-jog classes tend to be the last division of the day, finding a talented beginner with very little lesson experience is sometimes more crucial than finding that star reining rider or advanced showman with years of AQHA records to back up their name.

Every autumn finds me eyeing up my Western I physical education class with eyes like a hawk, swooping down on potential team riders from the very first day they lunge at the walk and jog. If they look like they can sit, have a natural feel or balance and seem to be enjoying themselves rather than being wide-eyed in fear, they’re mine. Sometimes we luck out and find a gem (like an ex-boyfriend, an excellent cyclist with a lot of natural talent who wound up ninth at Nationals in the individual beginner championships) and sometimes what looked like a great potential turns out to be a flash in the pan.

This year, we didn’t find one gem. We found three.

We had a wonderful core of beginners already, now in their second year each and developed into three lovely horsewomen. Add our new trio of avid beginners and we’ve got six walk-joggers, giving us the kind of depth that most teams only dream about.

Typically, a walk-jogger comes in having ridden a bunch in an informal setting, like a summer camp or climbing on the neighbor’s horses to hack around the field. Shannon, one of our new additions, came from such a background, riding horses with her aunt but without any formal training. She’s already earned points for us as well as beaten other schools’ point riders—in the IHSA format, a single point rider in every division must be named and only that rider’s points count towards the team total. However, non-point riders can still beat other teams’ point riders, taking points away from other schools.

In addition to Shannon with her equestrian background, however, we have Desmond and Javon (the latter of which was featured in my column a few weeks ago) neither of which had ever touched a horse prior to this semester.

So not only did I have to teach these riders to show, I also had to teach them simply how to ride. I was aided in this endeavor by my excellent captain Kristin, who took over the walk-jog practice, adopting Desmond as her special project in a kind of “zero-to-hero” boot camp over about four practices. Kristin came to me wide-eyed after practice number three.

“Desmond told me he wasn’t happy with his backing on the rail, so we spent 10 extra minutes working on that and reversing at the jog. He…like…really wants to figure this out.”

We were similarly impressed a few weeks later when Desmond showed up with a complete show outfit, from pressed black show pants, chaps, a brand new starched shirt, necktie and shaped hat. “I wanted to have my own stuff. I think I’m going to be doing this for awhile.”

Javon is driven by a need for speed, which is not always at harmony with the western horsemanship arena, in which showing off how fast your draw horse can jog is not generally a recipe for success. I had to tell him sternly before his showing debut this weekend that showing the judge that he was quite capable of loping even in a walk-jog only class would not earn him any extra points.

“So what you’re saying, Doctor-Professor-Coach Kristen,” as he so endearingly calls me, “is that I can’t sprint?”

“No, Javon. No sprinting, loping, jogging quickly or doing anything other than exactly what they tell you to do.”

Upon entering the arena, Javon gave a huge nod and grin to the judge, who, though perhaps a little confused, smiled and nodded back. Our newest walk-jogger then proceeded to straighten his shoulders, lift his chin, put on his serious “game face” and ride his way to a third-place debut.

With a sixth place for Desmond and a first place for Shannon as well, I think it’s safe to stay that we’ve got the foundation we need for another champion team.

Javon captured in a rare moment of having his hat on the right way. Photo credit to Kathryn Schaller.

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, Take the Reins, and most recently Ranch & Reata.


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