The horse show world might be known for catty competitiveness, but in many cases there exists a brighter, shinier side of the coin as well. Kristen Kovatch explains.
The horse world has an overwhelming reputation for being cliquey—so-and-so and her friends don’t talk to what’s-his-name because of a falling-out with Trainer Y and so on, etc. etc. It seems more common for bridges to be burned instead of built; few seem to maintain friendly relations with former trainers, boarders, students or teachers. I realize, of course, that I am not speaking for all, and hopefully not even for the majority; Horse Nation in particular is the best online horse community I’ve ever seen and if we were all showing together one weekend I feel like we’d have a blast. (It had better be a really big all-around show.)
I am pleasantly reminded each summer, however, that the horse community can also be a source of friendship, support, encouragement and fun. Our local reined cowhorse club is painfully small, the discipline slow to take off in western New York state. We have a thriving community of green riders but are lacking a large base of professionals who could bring in non-pros and pass on knowledge. The most recent show this past weekend drew only a dozen riders from around the area: there aren’t a lot of us, so the ones that come out to show have learned to stick together.
This year, rather than showing my talented little red mare myself, I shared her with a student from the interscholastic team that I coach. Haley has a lot of natural talent as a young horsewoman with a lot of empathy and kindness for her mount; she clicks with my horse with her quiet riding and truly wants to learn as a much as possible about any discipline. Because we had no cattle permanently quartered at the equestrian center, however, the only way for us to practice was by working each other on horseback. Haley’s first cow would be at the cowhorse show—mercifully during a paid warm-up rather than in an actual class. I imagine this would be a little bit like only ever schooling cross-rails at home before going cross-country at a horse trial—the danger and difficulty level get amped up considerably.
Recognizing that I had a green rider, one of the attending professional trainers kindly stayed in the arena while Haley faced down her first cow, calling out helpful advice and talking her through the moves to make to gain working advantage. My horse carried her through, knowing in that sixth sense that horses possess that this would not be a good time to bust out her biggest moves. We thanked the trainer for his donated time as Haley rode out of the practice ring with an ear-to-ear smile. I suspected she was hooked.
In her actual classes, Haley was understandably hesitant as she started to learn how to feel out a cow, the near-instinct developed over years of working cattle, knowing when to wait and when to push. The other riders outside the show pen provided helpful commentary, encouraging her to step up or ease back, cheering when she made a good stop or turn. They had never met her before and she didn’t know them—they were simply pleased to see a new young rider trying out the sport, seeking to encourage her to stick around and play. In the holding area outside the show pen, the experienced riders were liberal with their praise, as well as a few pieces of advice for next time. Haley accepted them all thoughtfully, gracious to be part of this well-wishing community.
After the show, as riders put up their horses and chatted in the barn aisle, a number of questions came my way: did my student enjoy herself? Was she going to stick with it? How long had she been riding? Reined cowhorse, by its unpredictable nature, seems to be a discipline in which everyone needs encouragement, from the most basic green rider to the highest-level professional, and I think the other riders were bolstered by seeing the success and enjoyment of a new young person.
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