In My Boots: A couple of kids on cow ponies

IHSA western coach Kristen Kovatch reflects on the evolution of a mutually educational student-teacher relationship.

From Kristen:

Rewind six years: I am sitting on my first horse in Alfred’s indoor, transformed into a team penning arena, waiting for my turn to compete. The holding area is crowded with riders and horses, cow ponies apparently having a higher tolerance for their neighbors than the show horses I am used to dealing with; my stirrup is rubbing my friend’s foot on her horse next to mine and every now and then our mounts touch noses and nod.

A few horses over sits a boy, four or five years younger than I am, still in high school but with more years of penning experience than I could ever hope to achieve. We are impressed when we watch him, his horse quick on its feet and to our novice eyes the rider fluid and natural as they sorted out and penned their cattle. We spoke with him a little bit between runs—his name was Derek, and he had been penning since he had learned to ride. Neither Derek nor I knew at the time, of course, what was in store for us in a future we had no idea we would ever share.

Fast forward to three years later, still in Alfred’s indoor arena, the western head coach and myself, the new assistant, standing together watching tryouts. Ten riders jogged on the rail around us, striving for perfection in their horsemanship and a shot at landing a place on the varsity team. Among them was Derek, now a first-year student seeking to continue his equestrian education. He made the team, of course—he had a long way to go yet, but no one could argue that Derek couldn’t ride. Team penning doesn’t seem like a likely place to find the next big horsemanship champion, and truthfully it isn’t. Derek, however, had an open mind and a lot of raw talent for sitting on a horse: that, we could work with.

While it’s easy for me to look back and reflect on Derek’s journey from a rough-and-ready team penner to a versatile horsemanship and reining rider (and captain of our team to boot) it’s harder for me to remember my own journey as I developed my abilities as a coach and mentor. Retrospectively, as much as I taught Derek about softening his aids and riding in the modern horsemanship style, he’s taught me equally how to be a better coach, leader, motivator, teacher and friend. Neither of these transformations happened overnight—there were many hours of hard work involved on both ends.

This weekend, at the IHSA National Finals in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I watched Derek’s performances—not completely flawless, but improving with each trip as he learned, processed and tried harder with each ride. In the end, he was aptly rewarded for his efforts, finishing seventh in the AQHA High Point Rider competition, designed to test the best rider in each region in both horsemanship and reining. Among many moments of pride as a coach, watching Derek accept his ribbon with a big smile and a handshake ranked near the top.

I’m proud to call Derek one of my students. I hope he’s equally proud to call me his coach. At heart we’re still just a couple of kids on cow ponies—with another year to develop our teamwork. Who knows? Fast forward another year and we’ll see just how far we can go.


Head coach Harry, rider Derek and assistant coach Kristen. Photo by Connie Inzinna.

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 She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.


Kristen & her horse Playgirl

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