Tara Kowalski hangs out with Chip while another horse completes a successful photo-bomb. Kowalski has just returned from a trip to the United States. She participated in a week-long para-reining clinic in Texas

Blazing a trail in brand new sport

A Chilliwack woman has fallen in love with a new sport, and is now a vocal ambassador of para-reining.

Imagine getting in on the ground floor of a new sport.

Being there for the first hockey game, the first tennis match, the first Quidditch tournament.

Chilliwack’s Tara Kowalski may one day go down in the annals of history for helping create an Olympic sport. The 25 year old believes she is one of the first in Canada — and one of the first in the entire world to participate in para-reining.

She’s just returned from a trip to Texas and Oklahoma, where she participated in a week long clinic and helped demo the sport at the 2014 National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Futurity Show.

Tara is blazing a path that others will follow.

“I try not to make a big deal of it, because it’s a sport and I don’t want to get nervous and tense,” she said. “But it is amazing sometimes. I’m on Facebook and people are like, ‘Go Tara! Go Tara! Go Tara!’”

So what is this new sport?

In para-reining, Tara guides a horse around a ring, executing certain movements.

Circles, big and small.

Backing up, 360-degree spins and something called a roll-back.

“Roll-backs are where you stop suddenly, turn your horse and go in the other direction,” Kowalski explained. “At the higher levels they do slides, which I find very nuts. That’s where you go as fast as you can, stop and have your horse slide.”

“It’s like driving your car, slamming on the brakes and skidding,” Tara’s mom, Denise, added.

Tara is judged on the accuracy of these movements.

Competitors enter the ring with a starting score of 70/100, which moves up or down based on the smallest of things. For instance, when doing a big circle, Tara guides her horse around cones.

“What you do has to be symmetrical and look like a circle, and there has to be fluidity in the way the horse moves,” Tara said. “If it’s not fluid, the horse will look stiff and wooden.”

“The horse is supposed to be straight, meaning equally between your legs and moving in a forward, fluid motion,” Denise added. “What can happen sometimes is the horse drops its shoulder, and it moves into the circle.”

“Which would deduct points,” Tara concluded.

Reining sounds a lot like dressage, and the two disciplines are like twin sisters, but for a few subtle alterations (like no whips/spurs). The rules of reining are still being debated and refined, and competitors may not have a clearly defined rule-book until November of next year.

But there is one distinct difference that has already captured Tara’s attention like dressage never did.

“I’ve being doing dressage for 13 years, and I think of reining as dressage for western,” she said with a smile. “Dressage is like sipping a glass of wine, while reining is like grabbing a glass of beer. I’m a country girl and I feel I’ve found my niche.”

What Tara’s talking about is atmosphere and presentation.

Dressage is prim and proper, uptight even, with dress boats, derby caps and hair drawn back into buns. Spectators, silent throughout a ride, show their approval at the end with appropriately timed golf-claps.

Contrast that with reining, where crowds are allowed to hoot, holler and whistle to their heart’s content.

“I’ve been in dressage events where the only ones watching were my mom and my coach,” Tara elaborated. “In reining, I’m in that pen with the bleachers almost full. People are staying to watch it, and it’s so fun. I try to show off a little.”

Tara’s partner in her  reining adventure, most of the time, is a quirky horse named Chip (Kings View Microchip).

“He’s the funnest horse to be around, and if we were outside right now he’d probably take your tape recorder and walk off with it,” Tara laughed. “He plays with the cones. When my mom tries to bridle him he puts the reins in his mouth. Even when he’s dumping me on the ground he’s a blast to be around.”

“When you try to bathe him you’ll get a shower because he’ll pick up the hose, swing his head around and spray water everywhere,” Denise chuckled.

“He once grabbed my friends car keys and swallowed them enough that he set off the car alarm!” Tara added.

But when it’s game time, the silly horse gets serious, putting on the game face.

“Once he’s saddled and bridled he knows its time to go to work,” Tara said.

Next year will be a big one for this dynamic duo, with Tara and Chip helping invent a sport.

Tara’s biggest hope for 2015 is that others will join them.

“If you want a relaxed atmosphere that’s like dressage without the prim and proper, then try reining,” she appealed. “Just try it once and you won’t go back.”

Get more at equinecanada.ca