Role models and winners: Making the case for both in a trainer

Jessie and Katie at Biltmore, 2007. Photo courtesy of Diane Koerner


While we’re reimagining the sport, we need to fundamentally reevaluate what it means to be a coach. 

Looking around at the current state of things in our equestrian community, many of us could agree the ship is rocking pretty hard. There have been broad essays on re-centering the animal, of holding all participants to equal account for the rules and Karl Cook’s now-famous video on beginning to fix competition at the highest levels. None of it is new. We’ve been having these conversations for years.

It feels like a tangle of issues bigger than any of us individually can solve. But looking at the influence one woman had on the sport can direct our own actions when it comes to making us collectively better. 

I began reflecting on my time with Katie Maxwell when a friend posted a contemplative photo with the caption “#[expletive]cancer” in the days leading up to her death last week. I was not her star pupil, her closest friend, longest, richest or most recent client. But her impact on me, as well as this sport and ovarian cancer prevention, came down to her choice to constantly build all of us up. 

I pulled into Sovan Hill in Landrum, South Carolina as a 19-year-old sophomore at Furman University, with my mare in tow, at sunset on September 5, 2005. I was coming off of a rough freshman year experience, and a hit or miss summer in the amateur-owner jumpers back home in Colorado. 

Katie was away, but when I walked Finale into her new stall it was outfitted with balloons and, “Welcome!” scribbled on the whiteboard. I’d never felt more wanted anywhere. I hadn’t even taken a lesson with her yet, and already her enthusiasm was infectious. 

A welcoming sight: Sovan Hill, 2005. Photo courtesy of Diane Koerner

My three years with Katie weren’t easy or consistent. I was devastated when we had to lay up my eight-year-old mare for more than a year with a torn collateral ligament in her stifle. At the time, Katie coached the Clemson University IHSA team, as well as a barn full of private clients from pony kids to Young Rider. She was training and riding with Aaron Vale and McLain Ward. No one — least of all me — would have blamed her for asking me to go elsewhere to rehab my horse. 

Katie Maxwell grabbed on to me instead. 

In the 15 years I’d been riding at that point, I was with five different coaches. Some of them I’m still friends or friendly with. Some of them damaged me for decades. That’s not uncommon in our sport, if we’re being honest. We tolerate a lot of abuse from other horse people. In reviewing the trove of resources the US Center for SafeSport makes available it became clear that there is too much behavior accepted ringside that is abusive behavior anywhere else. 

On any given day, you can find impassioned defenses of abusive behavior on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and even in the articles posted around the industry. From not allowing water breaks to humiliation in a group lesson or clinic, to rampant encouragement of eating disorders, we routinely accept abuse of each other as somehow proving we are tough enough. And that’s before we get into the headlines that have illuminated some of our sport’s most problematic people. 

Jessie and Katie in Ocala, 2008. Photo courtesy of Diane Koerner

Yet, for three years at Sovan Hill, I was regularly insulated from that behavior, included and encouraged. Katie found horses for me to ride and kept me in the saddle. She took me along to Aiken, Conyers and Ocala, putting me on horses that would educate me and build my confidence. She was so cool, and so were her clients. Each show felt like a big family outing — mainly because it was. I struggled and fought for every completed round, but Katie kept giving me chances to break through because I kept getting on to take them.  

Katie was the very first coach I’d seen, let alone worked with, who demonstrated to every client, every day that the sport could be valuable and fun and adventuresome, and also productive and successful. Even when she was frustrated, it was always in search of a solution. The ribbons came with the lessons. 

The horsemen and women who came out of her program are as admirable as she. That may be the most impressive thing about Coach K: how contagious she made greatness. It wasn’t an accident or coincidence, though. She modeled what she expected, and we couldn’t help but want to rise to meet her there. 

In this year of awful, it’s cruelly fit that we’d lose her. And while many of her students had to grow up and move on too, her influence as a coach, a rider, a trainer, a mom, a wife and an endless advocate for those in her care continues to guide us.

It’d been a while since Katie and I last spoke. Life, you know. The horses she sent me home to Colorado and on my way into the world with over a decade ago are still in the barn, though. While I almost quit riding hundreds of times during those years, Katie gave me a lifeline and a shored up foundation for enjoying the work rather than the result. No matter how many times I come out of the saddle or pull a rail or nurse an injury or win a classic or bring home a champion ribbon, my love for this sport comes from a renewable and resilient place. 

Arrival at Sovan Hill, 2005. Photo courtesy of Diane Koerner.

As we improve the sport, one of the first steps you can personally take is to ask yourself if the person who is guiding you and taking your money and caring for your best friend is reflective of who you want to be (or who you want your child to be). For so long we have accepted abuse of rider and horse, deceit or superficiality, and unsportsmanlike conduct in as the norm because of a correlation with winning. Every choice we make in this sport — from trainers, braiders, farriers, barn owners — indicates our values. What we deem acceptable not only in the care of our animals but in conduct that reaches out into the world.

“Champions are made of something they have deep inside them. A desire, a dream, a vision.” Katie put this Muhammad Ali quote on a Sovan Hill t-shirt once, with RIDE LIKE A CHAMPION emblazoned under it. Katie lived like a champion, and gave all of us the skills to dig deep for that ability too. We should stop accepting anything less. 

Jessie Koerner is an amateur based in Denver, Colorado. She competes in the amateur-owner jumpers, and works as a communications strategist.