The National Reining Horse Association Derby is one of the richest shows on the NRHA calendar, with over $650,000 in added money. Kristen Kovatch was on scene at the event.
Sometimes I’m pretty sure I have the best job in the world: I spent last week coaching my high school equestrian team to a sixth-place finish at the Interscholastic Equestrian Association’s western national finals in Oklahoma City, held in conjunction with none other than the National Reining Horse Association Derby. This is one of the richest shows on the NRHA calendar with over $650,000 in added money and it’s an awesome opportunity for my youth riders to get exposed to some of the best reining they will see ever, anywhere. And, of course, I get to hang out and watch too.
We settled into our seats on Saturday night to watch the Level IV Open Finals, the best of the best of the Derby competing for top honors and prize money. It’s hard to describe the mood of the crowd all around the arena without resorting to cliché, so I won’t even try—there was a certain electricity in the air, anticipation and excitement that was rising to a fever pitch. The competitors were riding NRHA Pattern 9, a run-in, meaning that the gates opened and a horse and rider charged down the centerline, out of the darkness of the Gateway of Champions and into the stage-lit show pen to the scream of the crowd.
Being in the audience at one of these big shows is an interactive experience: at each maneuver, the crowd whistles, cheers, hoots and hollers. Newcomers to reining are often floored by how much noise observers are making (about as floored as my friends were when I whistled once at a dressage schooling show—different worlds, I get it now!) I firmly believe, however, that some of the top horses thrive on the mood of the crowd: the same has been said for big show jumpers and racehorses, so it makes sense to apply it to reiners as well. All of the horses I witnessed performing on Saturday night seemed to throw their whole heart into their jobs, circling at a gallop, spinning so low and so fast that it seemed a miracle that the riders stayed mounted, throwing their noses between their knees and sliding further than I was sure possible. With each move the audience screamed in excitement and I was caught right up in it—it’s hard not to get enthusiastic.
We watched most of the finals from seats at the far end of the ring so we could watch the horses sliding towards us in reining’s signature stop, dirt flying up in a huge cloud. For the first few trips, however, we had grabbed seats right by the in-gate, offering us a new way to watch the show as the owners and connections of each horse were standing at the gate right below us to cheer. Watching each family and the rollercoaster of emotions as their horses performed was moving; my particular favorite was the man from Italy who watched his horse, shipped all the way to Oklahoma for the event, screaming him and the trainer on in Italian. Members of the crowd often cheered the riders on by name, giving the entire event an intimate feel.
If you’ve never attended a reining in person, find some events in your area and hang out for a day. Don’t be afraid to make a little noise and cheer your favorites home—you’ll be part of the crowd in no time.
Check out my personal favorite run from the open finals, Casey Deary and Americasnextgunmodel—turn up your volume for the full experience. I appreciate the announcer, who revs up the crowd as well by building up the new high score in the class. Deary went on to place second in this class, beaten out by HF Mobster and Jordan Larson.
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