Have you ever had a moment you were so proud of your horse, you thought your heart might actually burst wide open with joy? Kristen Kovatch can relate.
My relationship with my horse is probably pretty similar to other partnerships: hot and cold, love and hate, up and down, success and failure. After entering the professional side of the horse industry, I’ve had to learn the hard way that the trainer’s horse is usually the last one to get ridden, the bottom of the priority list, the horse at the end of the day that’s sacrificed most often in attention, exercise or schooling. When you have a high-energy cutting horse that requires a disproportionate amount of time just to get warmed up enough to teach her anything new, you’re not going to have a lot of spare time or energy to get much done. The road to transforming this half-broke cutter into a finished reined cowhorse was long and treacherous.
Which is how I found myself on the brink of the decision to sell Playgirl at the end of the winter, or at least try to give her back to my mentor with whom I owned the mare in partnership. Sure, we had some success together as a team in cowhorse competition over the summer, but she had to earn her keep in the university program as well. I had spent the past semester riding her maybe twice a month, mostly watching her sass my students in class and practice, making herself without debate the “worst draw” in every situation as she corkscrewed in the air and bucked sideways at the slightest provocation. Frankly, I was embarrassed to call her mine.
She was more than a horse, of course—she was a symbol of my abilities as a horseman, a representation of myself as a trainer, a coach, a teacher to others. I stepped into my job as college teacher and coach right after graduation, only just barely claiming seniority over my once-peers now-students. Every year this gap grew a little wider, a little more comfortable; I began to develop confidence and natural authority as my experience increased and the success of my students began to speak for itself. But there were still plenty of moments in which I felt as green as my riders, questioning my own abilities, my own rights to direct others and call myself their leader and coach. Playgirl cavorting about the arena sending half of my team into a cold sweat was doing nothing to help my clout as a professional—after all, here was the horse that should be a model to others, blowing off every single person who got on her back including her owner and trainer.
Playgirl was ruined, or so it seemed: she had learned a laundry list of bad habits, she had no natural talent, she was unbalanced and it would take a near-lifetime to retrain her. It was time to give up, to step away from this disaster of a horse. Ultimately, the only truth with which I hadn’t come to terms was that all of my frustration and disappointment was in myself.
My coworker rode her a bit off and on for a month, reporting back to me her suggestions which I tried out from time to time. In the hubbub of the end of the IHSA season for most of my team, Playgirl got pushed again to the backburner and we took a hiatus from each other—she sat in her stall or got a little turnout; I rode a lot of other horses, coached my team and continued to educate myself slowly in a hundred indescribable ways.
We could not run from each other forever, however: we were scheduled to host an IEA (Interscholastic Equestrian Association) show at our home facility, and all of our horses would need to pull their weight, Playgirl included. The week before the show—no minute like the last minute—I put in a few rides on my mare, incorporating some of the things I had learned over the past few months as well as a few tips I had picked up from my coworker. She was far from perfect, but she would be good enough for the show.
And then by some twist of fate, a horse was pulled from the show and Playgirl, listed as first alternate in the intermediate-level reining classes, found herself entered in the draw. Not only would she have to be ridden by children of varying skill level on the rail, she would now be reined, expected to perform maneuvers which we were still polishing, hoping to be on par with the other horses in the draw. Much like the IHSA college version, IEA riders get on a horse cold, head into the arena and show. On a green horse, this process could easily become a total nightmare.
Standing in the in-gate at Saturday’s show, I could only cross my fingers and hope that my week of loping Playgirl down had sufficed. My own rider had drawn her in this first class, which was a mixed blessing: I knew exactly how my student would ride her, but when my mare failed to perform I would feel twice as much as though I had let my student down.
The pair began their pattern and much to my relief it not only did not go poorly but it actually went quite well. Playgirl and Haley finished their first set of circles, stopped neatly in the center, and performed four spins—my horse that could not seem to get out of her own way with me aboard was now planting a hind foot and turning around herself, slowly but steadily and correctly. The process was repeated in the other direction and my coworker and I exchanged looks of glee. The real moment of truth came in the lead changes—with both my coworker and me, Playgirl often kicked out or jumped up in the air rather than changing smoothly from back to front. As Haley cued her gently over, however, Playgirl changed leads seamlessly and headed into the new circle as we whooped and whistled. Priding myself on not being overly emotional, I nonetheless felt as though my eyes might water as I watched this pair perform. That was my horse—I had trained her. I had brought her from a nervous four-year-old with a buck and a bolt into this beautiful, smooth, flawless ride: if not for me, then for a young person in competition. In a way, there was no higher calling for either of us, and in that moment I was more proud of my horse and myself than for any class or show or buckle we had won together.
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 & Playgirl