In My Boots: A few notes for future IHSA riders–and their trainers

Are you a high-schooler thinking about joining an equestrian team in college? Alfred University western coach Kristen Kovatch has a tip.

From Kristen:

While talking to college-bound high school riders last week at Equine Affaire, I repeated much of the same advice over and over again–keep riding. Ride different horses. Learn as much as you can and keep an open mind. One young rider, however, stuck out in my mind: She had been taking lessons for several years, showing on the local “circuits” and doing a little bit of jumping. I ballparked where her experience level would place her according to the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association’s placement guidelines and began to describe where she would be competing.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she replied. “My trainer knows where I’ll be competitive and she’s going to make sure I stay there.”

For any readers not familiar with the IHSA, new riders are placed into levels (six total hunt seat, five western) based on their prior showing and riding experience. Since riding alone can be hard to quantify, the IHSA has built a leveling system based on recognized show experience: recognized, in this case, meaning USEF-recognized (hunt seat) or AQHA-recognized (western–APHA counts at the state and world level). Many a rider’s collegiate career has been hampered by that one time an overzealous trainer thought it would be “fun” to try a rated show or to haul to the breed show. Just one class can change a student’s four-year riding career.

Being a riding instructor myself, I can see it both ways. I love that my IEA kids get essentially trained in the arts of IHSA (the random draw, the equitation-based competition) but can be placed in some of the lowest levels available, making them “ringers” for easy team points and year-end qualifications. At the same time, I would love to expose some of those kids to AQHA showing, the same way my coworker would love to haul them to rated shows for experience. I have a responsibility, however, to make sure they know what they’ll be getting into many years down the road–are they ready to compete at the higher levels? Am I doing them a disservice?

Some trainers are in the business for business, of course, and they can’t deny a client the chance to compete in a bigger, recognized show (and the fees that come with it). In the increasingly-competitive world of collegiate riding, however, trainers might find that they can do a better business by honest coaching of their young riders with collegiate riding in mind. A beautiful equitation rider who has been showing the medal classes is one thing–but a lesser-talented but equally passionate rider who is thinking maybe they’d like to try that A-rated show that one time might be damaging her prospects at riding competitively at college.

Ultimately, when planning ahead for college-bound riders, it’s going to boil down to the individual rider’s goals: is collegiate competition all-important? Realistically, do they see themselves showing after college? Do they want to be an intercollegiate superstar with a scholarship, or are they looking for something more recreational? The choices a young rider makes in their junior or youth career can have a ripple effect for years to come, whether they want to see it that way or not.

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 and teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving. She has shown reined cow horse, reining, western pleasure, and draft horses, as well as dabbled in hunt seat equitation. 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, Take the Reins and Ranch and Reata.



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