This week Kristen Kovatch trades in her western saddle and reining patterns for an English saddle and jumping course to compete in an IHSA alumni class.
Long-time readers of this column might remember the original Crossover Challenge in which I gave a hunt seat equitation rider a two-semester makeover into a western reining champion. We love crossover riders at my university equestrian center, encouraging our students to cross-train and learn about all disciplines even if they wish to specialize in one.
But this belief is only as valuable as its followers. We have a large number of riders on the western team who started in hunt seat, eventing or dressage—but only one western rider who’s added hunt seat equitation to her abilities.
So I decided to take the plunge myself.
I used to ride hunt seat, years and years ago as a youth competitor in local 4H shows. I was decent but never a star; I had a few wrecks through fences and when I moved from the ponies to the horses I just never had my heart into it. Western seemed like a fun alternative for a year or two… and then I got really good at it and never looked back. I hack a lot of the horses for the English program at work but that was the extent of it in my professional life.
The IHSA offers alumni classes for riders who rode as undergraduates and wish to continue competing in this format post-graduation. Even though I only competed on the western team as an undergraduate (competing twice at Nationals) I scanned the rulebook carefully—I was eligible for both disciplines. I signed myself up, crammed some lessons with the hunt seat coaches into my schedule, and accumulated a show outfit.
At one point in my youth I was pretty solid over fences. After taking a few years off and then only jumping cross-country at the ranch I worked in Wyoming (we rode in two-point, took whatever distance presented itself and raced 30 to 40 unbroken young Arabians that lived in the same pasture as the course) my equitation needed some serious elbow grease. When in doubt I basically grabbed mane and stood up; to my credit I managed to find a distance almost every time. Essentially, I had to think about my ride rather than ride instinctively; just as I observed in my students, muscle memory took over when things started happening quickly, and in this case that involved sitting back too far for hunt seat tastes and throwing myself at the fences.
Immense credit goes to the horses on which I practiced, ranging from some of the more patient among our herd to some fairly tricky mounts, each one teaching me something new: Sully taught me to keep my hands quiet and low and finding a good canter; Clare taught me to ride the horse rather than the fence; Murphy taught me to sit and keep riding in ever turn rather than “dirtbike” around the arena. Jake takes the cake for putting up with all sorts of training tricks: my stirrups the length of the saddle flap (much more difficult when you consider that I’m 5’11”) then no stirrups at all, my reins under rather than over his neck to get me to actually close my hip over the fences rather than stand. In the last week up to the show, everything finally started to click, from my rides over the course to my flatwork in which I focused on holding the proper angles in my hip, keeping my leg beneath me, my knee folded tight to the saddle.
The draw gods were with me on show day—in the IHSA format, horses and riders are randomly paired by draw, so every ride is a catch-ride in a way. I drew a big draft cross on the flat—though he was big and kind of clunky, he was comfortable and very easy to look on. My flat ride felt fantastic and I earned second place out of nine.
Over fences, I drew our steady, reliable equitation machine, a Thoroughbred gelding named Sherman. In a way, I was a little disappointed that I did not draw one of the more difficult horses I had practiced on in the past week—but when the ride started, I was happy to be mounted on what was probably the best draw in the class. It seemed so sudden—one moment I was standing in the barn aisle waiting for my turn to go, and then suddenly I was cantering and headed for the first fence.
Just before entering the ring, my friend who was serving as my personal coach for the day and I decided to lower my stirrups a hole. Unfortunately this proved to be a fatal flaw; I had a hard time riding down into the left stirrup in particular and spent the rest of the ride leaning left. On the other hand, I nailed every distance, remembered to sit (sort of) around the ends of the arena, kept my hands low and my knee pressed into the saddle flap. Muscle memory had taken over, but at last I had developed muscles that remembered what discipline I was riding. I was a true crossover.
In the end, I placed sixth of nine, which I considered a great debut for a rider who one week prior had been galloping around the arena on a reiner in a musical freestyle. At the end of my round, the entire Alfred hunt seat team was gathered in the outgate, cheering and clapping and bringing me home. If nothing else, I had made them proud, proving to everyone that it’s possible to excel as an all-around rider.
Go ride…everything you can get your hands on, no matter the discipline.
Video by Amelia Maslen
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, Take the Reins, and most recently Ranch & Reata.