“I came, I saw, I crashed headfirst through an oxer and had a great time,” says IHSA coach Kristen Kovatch. Oh, this is going to be good.
In our row of stalls at the New York state fairgrounds for last weekend’s Interscholastic Equestrian Association’s hunt seat National Finals, we had all of our bases covered: a couple of simple and solid Quarter horses for the flat, some lower-level reliable mounts over fences, a fancy show pony and a handful of eye-catching upper-level horses over fences. And then there was Sullivan: a rangy gray Thoroughbred, all legs and bones, uninspired-looking at best, stuck in that odd stage between being dappled and fleabitten. He jumped the 2’6” open courses easily with a solid lead change and was much admired by the coaches and riders present for his reliability, but he wasn’t the most exciting horse to watch—especially not compared to our famous Gandalf, a beautiful Irish sport horse, dark dappled gray with enough presence to fill the barn. As our horses paraded from the barn to the schooling ring decked out in their Alfred University coolers, it was Gandalf that drew everyone’s eyes and admiration, not poor old Sullivan.
On the other hand, he was safe, and anyone could ride him. These qualities were exactly the reason that he became my responsibility to school for the weekend, driving up to Syracuse from little Alfred, setting my western classes up with videos to watch in my absence so I could pull on a pair of breeches and remember everything I thought I knew about jumping.
Friday morning’s schooling session as the sun rose over the city went well enough. Sully and I schooled sections of the course, attempting to navigate a sea of unfamiliar jumps without colliding with our fellow warm-up riders. In comparison to the schooling rings of actual horse shows, I’m sure this was nothing to get too excited over; for a western rider who is used to reining rings where everyone very nicely circles in the same direction and practices their stops all at the same time, it was chaotic. Sully performed admirably for his draw riders throughout the day and I tucked him in for the night pleased with our success.
The next morning was poised to go just as nicely: I started schooling the course for the day’s show, remembering exactly where I was supposed to be going, successfully avoiding colliding with other riders, keeping my eyes targeted ahead—and apparently also developing a prominent forward lean at the bigger oxers which became quite evident as Sully slammed on the brakes at last, doing exactly what I had been inadvertently telling him to do. Before I quite realized what was happening I was flipping up over his head and crashing down onto the back rail of the oxer, landing amongst the fake flowers, looking up at Sully quietly backing away from the mess.
Rule number one: don’t ever tell yourself it’s going well, because that will be exactly the moment it ceases to do so.
After remounting, I started the course over, trying to sit myself a little more upright, my hip angle a little more open, trying to give Sully the ride he needed. Whether I was able to do so or the saintly old gray was simply being forgiven I may never know, but the second course schooled quite well and I was begrudgingly dismissed from the ring. I returned to the barn to dust off my helmet and my shoulders and feed Sullivan his breakfast.
Despite my attempts to sabotage the poor horse completely, Sully’s rides went very well that day. None of the coaches or riders mentioned my failed attempt at flight and I chose not to bring it up, merely helping competitors adjust their stirrups and leading them into and out of the coliseum. While I knew I would have some homework to do upon returning home at the end of the show to relearn how to ride, at least I wouldn’t have to school over fences any more this weekend—the final day of the show was on the flat only.
Rule number two: every time you except that you will not have to worry about getting another opportunity to crash, you’ll get that opportunity.
The IEA runs an open championship class, pitting the top open riders in the country against each other in a two-phase class, tested first over three fences and then back on the flat on the same mount. All of the horses in that class had to be reschooled over the specific three fences, so I found myself back on Sully again, walking slowly from the schooling ring through the tunnel back into the bright lights of the coliseum for a second chance—to truly embarrass myself or to redeem myself, I did not know.
The mood in the in-gate was tense: the show was running late and the staff were rushing everyone along in that familiar hurry-up-and-wait kind of feel that seems unique to horse shows. Before I had time to think about it, I was trotting right into the arena and circling into the canter, scouting for my first jump—by some joke of fate, another oxer.
Sully’s normal rolling canter felt a little unsteady and he was thinking about shying at the banners on the wall, then a person standing at the edge of the ring, then a jump that definitely hadn’t moved since that morning. This was definitely not the best time for my steady-eddie mount to suddenly decide that he had to look at everything, so I sat a little deeper, shut my leg, marched him right up the first oxer and the rest of the short course was perfect.
As I was putting Sullivan up for the evening, I reflected on the schooling. Part of me knows that horses are not cognizant enough to know these things—but another part of me wondered if Sully somehow knew that my shaken confidence was going to need a good kick-start if he was going to get the ride he needed and deserved. The normally-unflappable gelding certainly did not act himself on our second trip into the ring—but set his mind to work instantly as soon as I sat up and rode. Did he know how to bring out the best in me, the same way I hoped to be able to bring out the best in him?
I watched Sully pick through his hay, looking completely unimpressed with the day’s events. After all, he was just a horse. There was no way he knew much more than was right in front of his nose. And yet maybe that was a lot more than we ever bargained for.
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