BY TYLER BUI
I began riding with Katie Schaaf at age five. She was my first trainer, and one of the first people I truly considered a role model in my life. She helped me to foster my love for horses and develop a true passion and commitment to the sport. Not only did she give me the fundamentals that led me to become the rider that I am today, she also taught me how to be a kind, caring, independent, self-motivated individual.
Today, Schaaf is the President of the Board of Directors for the Interscholastic Equestrian Association, as well as a rider, trainer, judge, and clinician. However, her journey to find her career was not ordinary. While she knew she would always have horses in her life, a career in the horse industry was never the plan. Schaaf graduated from Harvard Law School and spent a year and a half practicing law until she realized what her true calling was.
As a child, Schaaf grew up in New York City and began riding at age eight. She immediately fell in love with horses after her first ride.
“My first jumping lesson, which my mom was very nervous about, my babysitter was supposed to stay for the first half and my mom was supposed to arrive for the second half, but my babysitter left early and my mom arrived late, and I fell off in between. By the time my mom arrived to pick me up, I was back on the horse! I’m extremely grateful, because I don’t know if I would have been allowed to keep riding after that,” says Schaaf.
Schaaf later began riding in New Jersey with Ashton Phillips, and spent the end of her junior years riding at Rivers Edge trained by Ken Berkley, Gary Zook, and Meredith Taylor. She spent her senior year of high school as a working student, and says that her experience traveling on the road made her think she would never be a trainer.
“I learned a lot of wonderful skills from that experience, and skills I still employ to this day, but I think I learned that living on the road and going from horse show to horse show was not the life for me,” says Schaaf.
She attended Tufts University in Medford, MA and had planned to join the IHSA team long before she even arrived on campus.
“I was extremely excited to ride on the equestrian team at Tufts and was extremely grateful to have the men and women on the team as friends and people to welcome me to college,” says Schaaf. “I loved IHSA. I loved riding different horses. I loved the team aspect of it.”
Schaaf was the captain of the IHSA team, and in the summers she would occasionally catch ride friends’ horses. During her undergrad years, she says that she thought she would always have horses in her life, but never thought that she would ride too often as an adult. During Schaaf’s junior year at Tufts, she studied abroad and realized that she really missed horses if she was away from them for too long. Thinking about life after graduation, Schaaf had law school and master’s programs on her radar.
“I figured that I would get some sort of master’s or advanced degree—there was no plan on having a career in the horse industry at that point. That was completely accidental,” says Schaaf. “One reason I know that was definitely not the plan is that one of my closest friends did plan to turn professional, and she always talked about how she couldn’t wait to graduate to go work and live on the road. I knew that I didn’t want that.”
Schaaf made the final decision to attend Harvard Law School after an experience working in New York City after graduation.
“There was a school funding case called ‘The Campaign for Fiscal Equity vs the State of New York’ and one of my jobs was to read and summarize the decision,” she says. “The decision was about unequal funding in New York. It was beautifully written and it detailed ways in which schools were unequal in terms of teachers, facilities, books, equipment, arts, sports, and music. I thought the decision was so magnificent. My dad is a lawyer, my brother is a lawyer, and my mom ran a foster care agency, so I think I saw practicing education law as a way of combining both my mom and my dad’s passion in a way.”
She graduated law school in 2004 and had plans to practice some type of education law as her career.
“I was practicing law at a place called the Civil Rights Project which was at Harvard at the time, and I was also training and competing in Modern Pentathlon. As part of that, I needed some flexibility in my work. I started teaching part-time at August Farm with Dani White in January 2005. One day a week turned into two days a week, turned into three days a week, and it didn’t take very long until it was far more than full-time,” she says.
“I really loved it. I loved the kids. I loved the horses. I loved going to horse shows. It was a really good fit,” says Schaaf. “I knew that I loved what I was doing, and I didn’t want to stop doing it—largely, because of the kids I was teaching.”
Not long after deciding to pursue a full-time career in the horse industry, Schaaf immersed herself back into IHSA.
“I had been the captain of the Tufts IHSA team, so I knew I was comfortable in that environment. I became the head coach of the Tufts Team in the winter of 2006, and I did that for around 8 years,” she says.
Schaaf and Dani White started the August Farm IEA team around the same time. At that point, IEA was still relatively small in New England. In their first season competing, there was no Regionals, just Zone finals. She says that the growth of IEA happened very quickly.
“What I love about IEA and IHSA is that we’re teaching riding skills, discipline, and perseverance, but we’re also teaching horsemanship, leadership, and sportsmanship. That part is really fun,” she says. “I’ve always worked with coaches who enjoy that part as well. Dani White, Pam Duggan at Northgate Farm, and my current colleague Lisa Dye—I think we all really care about helping our riders become not only better riders but better people, and that part is rewarding. It’s really fun to see kids learn to work together and learn to help each other. It’s fun to see kids jump up and pitch in when they see someone that needs help. It’s a wonderful thing to witness.”
After many years of training, coaching, and riding in Massachusetts, Schaaf decided to move to North Carolina with her beloved dog, Raleigh. There, she met her husband Jeff, and found herself gaining new opportunities to further her career.
“Since I’ve moved to North Carolina, my job has become more fragmented, but in a way that I like. Now I spend some time judging, some time teaching clinics, some time teaching USEF and IEA students, some time riding,” says Schaaf. “I like the variety of it. I like that not every day or every week is the same, and that in both judging and teaching clinics I get to meet new people and see new places.”
Schaaf joined the Board of Directors for IEA in the fall of 2017, and was elected as president-elect at the end of that year. She served in that position for two years, and now is in a two-year term as President of the Board of Directors.
“Working with IEA has been an incredibly valuable learning experience because of Roxanne Durant, one of the founders of IEA. She is just an extraordinary leader. I admire her so much. She had the vision to create this organization that now has over 14,000 riders, but at the same time she has the day-to-day capability to create a team and lead a team,” Schaaf says. “When we have a challenge to face, she knows how to put the right people in the room. I feel like every day that I get to work with Roxanne I am learning something new from her. I also think that every person she employs is outstanding so I’m learning a lot from those people as well.”
When it comes to judging, Schaaf says that it is not only fun, but rewarding. She judges IEA and IHSA shows, and some USEF and local shows.
“As much as I did not know growing up that I was going to become a trainer, I did know that I was going to become a judge. If you know me, that makes sense,” says Schaaf. “When I was very young, my mom took me to Madison Square Garden to watch Maclay Finals. We went every year, and I sat in the stands with a legal pad of paper and a pen. I watched every single trip, took notes, and I would make my own standby and would be so excited to compare it to the judges’ standby. In that sense, I think I knew I always wanted to become a judge. It is a lot of time and a lot of work, so it happened maybe a little bit later than I wanted it to happen, but I’m so glad that it did.”
Looking forward, Schaaf hopes to continue to judge, teach clinics and clients, and work with IEA. She says she hopes that as she gets older, she can shift her work balance to more of an administrative role in a horse-related nonprofit or something similar. Schaaf has a passion for governance issues, and looks forward to dedicating more time focusing and working on that.
Her advice for young aspiring riders is as follows:
“In our sport, it’s really important to be self-motivated and to practice independently on the things that are hard for you, not the things that are easy. For young riders, that’s a really important skill to learn,” says Schaaf. “Like we hear on the Plaidcast regularly, it’s important to be educated, and with whatever you want to do in your future, having a good education will make it easier to meet your goals. Horses are humbling—if it’s your passion, be realistic with yourself that you’re going to work hard every day. Some days you really feel that pay off, but other days you might doubt yourself. You still have to wake up the next day and work really hard. Learning to care for another creature and put it before yourself is an important life lesson.”