“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well, I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” Denzel Washington
The news of the passing of Gayle Matson Kozak, my first horse trainer and coach, has many of us feeling pensive today. My mother and I were introduced to Gayle in the early 1980’s by family friends whose daughter took lessons from Gayle. Not long after our introduction, I started riding lessons there and eventually we purchased a little Quarter Horse mare that we boarded at Hope Lock Farm. Gayle then broke and trained my youth horse (stolen from my mother Cheryl), showed him as a three-year-old and then continued to coach Skoal Bandit and I until we were early non-pro competitors.
I was blessed to grow up in the time of the barn rat. In the summers, my mother would drop me off at the barn before work and pick me up after her full-time job. I, and my fellow barn rats, spent the day cleaning stalls, riding, cleaning tack, goofing around and doing other odd jobs Gayle had for us. We all thought it was grand fun when in reality it was daily teachings of life lessons such as hard work, resilience, responsibility, friendship, and integrity. I am still friends with many of the amazing women I met through Hope Lock Farm and our many, many barn rat hours.
As I got older, went to college and graduate school, we eventually moved the horses on to a non-show barn and took a break from horse showing. When I returned to the show pen, moved to different trainers and different disciplines, my relationship with Gayle had shifted from that of youth mentor and friend to casual horse show acquaintance.
As we often do after someone’s passing, we reflect on what meaning they had in our lives. Despite the change in our relationship over time, I am keenly aware that I am the horse woman I am today because of Gayle. She taught me to ride. She taught much more than just how to sit on a horse but how to ride, fix a problem, know what was going on and make a plan to make it better. When breaking babies, I still use the tools I learned from her when she broke my youth horse in 1986. She also taught all aspects of horse care as it was a time of youth riders doing most of the dirty work (barn chores) themselves. As the Facebook meme that goes around says we should do, I am keenly aware of the profound influence on my lifelong passion for both horses and Appaloosas that is directly the consequence of my having been mentored by Gayle Matson Kozak.
These musings make me think about mentorship and it’s value. Mentorship is something more than coaching. The business world will tell you that there is a difference between a mentor and a coach. A coach is someone who focuses on our strengths and weaknesses to improve our performance. A mentor is someone with whom we develop a long-term relationship and the relationship is centered around the growth and development of the mentee.
What does a mentor do? First and foremost is that a mentor provides you with his or her knowledge. They let you learn from their experience and help you apply their experience to your life and life lessons. Mentors also help you improve and provide encouragement. They are a support system. A mentor can provide advice on big decisions. Mentors also help broaden your network and help you achieve your personal goals.
How may this apply to the horse industry? It is my opinion that a lot of people can coach. To me, in the horse industry, the coach role is often seen in the provision of lessons. The instructor perhaps sees a student on a weekly basis for their lessons. Tells them what to do in the lesson and what to work on in that ride. Then off the student goes until the next week’s lesson.
The mentor, in contrast (and I remind you this is just my opinion), teaches not just the what to do but the why. They share their experiences and knowledge in many areas of horsemanship. A mentor provides the opportunities for growth and learning both in and outside of the lesson. A mentor cultivates a close relationship with their student based on mutual respect and shared goals. It is not a relationship that flaunts power differentials. A mentor is a person who actually enjoys seeing their student’s success and knows that the true sign of success is seeing their student or mentee either meeting them or exceeding them in knowledge and success.
Many of us have lamented in recent years how young riders don’t want to do the work or kids just aren’t interested in horses the same way they used to be. While I am sure that there is some truth to this, I would like to also raise this question. What are we, current horsemen and horsewomen, doing to be mentors to both the youth and adults who are interested in horses, riding, and maybe even showing?
You do not have to be a trainer or a riding instructor to be a mentor in the horse world. There are so many people with vast knowledge in many areas of horsemanship that can pass that on to those with an interest. Are we cultivating nurturing relationships with those who are interested in horses? If you are a riding instructor or trainer, do you consider yourself a trainer, coach or mentor? What would it take to ramp things up a notch and move into mentorship, to develop relationships that are more than an hour a week in a lesson?
I know that as a psychologist I may be biased, but in the end it all comes down to relationships. Good relationships are what keep people in the horse industry. Of those many fellow barn rats from Hope Lock Farm, many of us are still in touch. It is not uncommon for half a dozen of us to be sitting around someone’s table in the summer for a cookout. And as for mentorship, of my generation of Hope Lock Farm girls, I can think of quite a few off the top of my head, Karla Altmann, Tricia Sullivan, Jennalinn Teel, Nicole Hoyer, who are currently, or have been actively in the horse business as trainers and riding instructors. To me this proves that Gayle mentored. She provided enough of her knowledge and expertise as a horse woman to help these former students launch successful careers in the equine industry.
As we say goodbye to Gayle Matson Kozak, we can be grateful for the amazing legacy of horsewomen and horsemen that were taught and mentored by her. She will live through their knowledge that they, in turn, pass to the next generations of horsemen.
What will your equine legacy be?