Not casserole dishes, silly. Recipes for horsemanship and training traded amongst riders, with benefits for all. Kristen Kovatch explains.
Every spring semester I get to teach one of my favorite classes, Western Riding Level IV—or as one student called it, “Training, Reining and Gaming.” Her moniker is basically correct: we spend the first half of the semester working on foundations of western training (teaching the horse to stay soft and supple in the bridle and responsive to leg and seat) and the basics of reining (essentially applying the training principles we learn.) Now that we’re in the second half of the semester, that mysterious rapid downward spiral to finals and commencement and (hopefully) warm weather and the outdoor arena, we’ve moved on to the exploratory part of the class where I try to invite as many students or local professionals to come in to share their knowledge in specific disciplines.
Enter Kelly Jo, our resident barrel racing expert.
Kelly Jo is one of those students that comes in to our program with a lifetime of experience and an open mind to learn as much as she can to figure out how to make her own riding and horses better. Barrel racing is not much like western horsemanship and yet she has thrown herself whole-heartedly into the horsemanship team this season, pushing herself out of her comfort zone but learning a brand-new bag of tricks and skills that have already helped her own barrel horses.
Barrel racers tend to get a bad rep from a lot of the horse world—they’re often perceived as a bunch of rough-around-the-edges yahoos with poor horsemanship skills who simply run their horses around barrels as fast as they possibly can. It’s true that there are plenty of riders out there like that, just like in every discipline. Kelly Jo has already changed a lot of minds at the barn, however, when other students observe the care she takes of her horses: carefully-selected legwear and tack, gentle bits no harsher than what she truly needs, magnetic blankets, chiropractics. Or maybe they notice when they watch her ride: creative exercises to keep her horses supple, responsive, but above all mentally fresh and stimulated. She can be seen in the dead of winter bundled up to her helmet visor in Carhartt coveralls, riding one horse around the outside of the barn while ponying the other because she could tell they didn’t need to be in the arena one more day. She finds time in her day to work two horses and maintain a full schedule of barrel races while juggling her schoolwork and team competitions as well.
Kelly Jo was a natural choice to help teach the barrel segment of Western IV for the second year in a row. I learned a lot myself right alongside my students, between the various bending exercises Kelly Jo put us through as well as the videos of her remuda of horses to discuss running styles. Our most recent class meeting found us jogging and loping a combined exercise with barrels and poles, designed to keep the horses from dropping in around each turn like a spoiled racer might. Kelly Jo generously let me ride her mare while she demonstrated on her gelding, describing the ways that these horses were so vastly different from each other. My students, mounted on our school reiners, put the horses through the exercise and then got the opportunity to try it on the gelding, marveling at how soft and flexible he was compared to their lesson horses.
Given Kelly Jo’s openmindedness about applying concepts from other disciplines to her own horses, I was able to not only absorb information from her but pass on some new ideas to try with her own horses as well. Her mare leans hard on the bit and braces, remarkably stiff in her back and neck to the simple and gentle loose-ring snaffle. I suggested trying a mechanical hackamore; my coworker unearthed one out of her tackroom and Kelly Jo gave it a whirl, noticing immediately how much looser the mare could carry herself with no reason to brace (and nothing left to brace on.)
Trading ideas with other horsemen reminds me that there will never be a shortage of new things to try or learn; my ride through the barrel patterns rekindled my interest in looking for new solutions for problems and reminded me that I have something to contribute to any discipline and any horseman, whether a small suggestion such as a tack change or a big idea to change a horse’s training. And who knows—if this whole teaching thing doesn’t pan out, maybe I can make it as a barrel racer.
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