This week Kristen Kovatch explains how she used some unorthodox methods (including but not limited to jumping) to help a western horse settle into his job.
Considering that my official job title is western teacher/trainer, I’ve been doing an awful lot of jumping recently. This past weekend, hosting two back-to-back intercollegiate hunt seat shows, I found myself schooling a record eight (!) horses, jumping three and hacking five more on the flat. My jumpers ranged from a leggy Thoroughbred gelding retired from the big eq with an automatic lead change to an enormous Oldenburg that I affectionately labeled “the war elephant,” to a little palomino Quarter horse named Wow.
Wow’s history is a little vague—from what we understand, he was bred and broke as a reined cowhorse but flunked out for whatever reason. When he first came to us in the spring of my first year on the job, he didn’t have much of a canter and a shuffling trot at best. Built downhill to begin with, he towed himself about on his forehand and leaned on the bit. With the understanding that he would have to be used both hunt seat and western, my English counterpart coworker and I got to work getting Wow fit.
One year later, he was pulling his weight—figuratively and literally. He had made improvements in his fitness, balance and lightness, but was still too forward to be a great western mount and not as big or fancy as the tall warmbloods and Thoroughbreds in the hunt seat program. He worked hard and worked often but never seemed to be anyone’s favorite—just one of those horses that always seemed to only be in the back of anyone’s mind. He trudged around the arena like a soldier, never completely engaged mentally or physically, just there to do his job and go home.
Over the summer, when we get the most time to train and retrain free from the hectic schedule of the school year, our program director requested that I work Wow more often and “find the good broke horse that’s buried in there somewhere.” I set to work, a bit begrudgingly, focusing my time on lateral work, asking Wow to move off my leg and free up his front end. As is the case with a lot of the retraining we do on the school horses, focusing on one area improves many others: after a few weeks, the horse that constantly felt like a small avalanche was able to sit down and stop, even sliding a few feet like the little reiner he had once been, backing up easily to soft pressure and getting laterally supple. He was still too forward to be a stellar western draw but at least he handled a little more like one.
The students returning in the fall noticed the difference right away—the hunt seat riders in particular had a much better time riding Wow, feeling not a braced and nearly-runaway animal but a soft and yielding horse who went to work with a much better attitude than he had ever had before. Both the director and my coworker commented to me that the work I had done had made a difference.
So much improved was Wow, my director decided, that it was time for him to jump.
This was how I found myself over the course of several weeks careening about the arena on my little yellow horse, having the best times of our collective lives. “You are NOT a barrel racer!” my director shouted at me on one such day. “Sit up and SLOW DOWN!”
Surprisingly—or perhaps not—Wow rose up to meet my seat as I sat up and he slowed down beautifully, rocking back onto his haunches, collecting his stride, packaging himself to power off the ground over a small Swedish oxer. His ears were pricked and his eyes gleefully focused from fence to fence. Somewhere along the way he developed a lead change.
Things came full circle again: while watching one of my western students ride Wow in a recent class, I could see the little palomino, happy at last to be doing his job, coming into the western way of going with a cheerful attitude and an engaged hind end, finally coming into his own like the little broke horse that was buried in there all along. We took a long way to get him there: flatwork, then western training, then jumping, then back to western, but the end result, regardless of the route we took, is the balanced, supple, cheerful and willing partner than any rider looks for in any discipline.
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.
Kristen & her horse Playgirl