Jun 13, 2023

The Willpower of Kyla Tovar

By Jonathan Horowitz - USEA Staff
Kyla Tovar and Kilcotrim Jacko. Xpress Foto photos

Kyla Tovar said the moment made her “burst into tears.”

She had just finished second in the Training Three-Day with Kilcoltrim Jacko and second in the Novice Three-Day with Shannondale Jordi in the USEA Classic Series competition at the 2023 IEA H.T. in Edinburgh, Indiana. However, it wasn’t about the placings with two horses in the long-format—although an impressive accomplishment in its own right. Tovar had just heard her number announced as the recipient of the show’s Willpower Award bestowed upon the fittest adult amateur rider.

“Somebody asked me, ‘Are you crying?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I grew up being the overweight rider.’ I was always pressured that I needed to get fitter, and to be recognized after years and years of hard work for being the fittest rider was the most incredible thing to me.”

Tovar has dedicated herself to her horses and eventing them in competitions like the Classic Series.

“Getting horses that I love dearly who are real competition horses, I’m like, ‘All right, I need to be fit enough for and keep up with them,’” she said. “It was an amazing accomplishment and meant so much to me.”

Tovar is from Barrington, Illinois, and her eventing journey began in the USEA’s Area IV. She competed in her first USEA-recognized event at 13 years old in 2013 aboard a 15-hand chestnut Haflinger gelding named Picture Perfect. When she was 14, Tovar moved up to Novice.

In 2020, she started competing in Area IX after moving to Fort Collins, Colorado, to attend Colorado State University. By this time, Tovar was partnering with Moylough Dapple, a gray Irish Draught Sport Horse mare (Merry Mate x Chestnut Rose). However, Tovar said she struggled to get back over the hump from Beginner Novice to Novice, and she experienced a number of rider falls and penalties on cross-country.

Kylva Tovar and Shannondale Jordi.

Frustrated and anxious about the direction of her eventing career, Tovar said she saw an ad on Facebook that was posted by five-star rider Katie Ruppel looking for a working student in the fall of 2020. Since her education at Colorado State had shifted to being online-based because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Tovar had moved home to Illinois and contemplated the next steps of her journey when she responded to Ruppel’s post.

“I was like, ‘I have no trainer right now; I don’t know what I’m doing,’” she said. “So, I just messaged her, ‘I’m not the best rider in the world, and I know I’m losing weight right now, but I’ll outwork any girl in your barn.’ She kind of just took a chance on me, and I went out and worked for her.”

Tovar clicked with Ruppel’s direct coaching style.

“Katie, when I was working for her, one, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t cry in front of her. She’s a five-star rider. She’s going to fire me if I’m crying over a Novice fence.' And two, we were at an event one day, and I was having a full-blown panic moment because I had a horrible show jumping, was walking to cross-country, and was in tears and couldn’t handle it. She actually walked away from me at the event and was just like, ‘Get a hold of yourself or I’m going back to the trailer’ and just walked away. I was expecting to have my hand held, and then when I wasn’t, I learned to rely on myself and my horse. Katie is not going to let me do something I’m not right for, so clearly I can do this.”

Tovar began experiencing new success in eventing. She started competing with Mighty Smart and won her first career blue ribbon at a USEA-recognized horse trials aboard the bay Hanoverian gelding (Mighty Magic x Ravenna) at the Rocking Horse Spring H.T. in Altoona, Florida, in April 2021. That was her 35th career USEA-recognized event and one month shy of the eight-year anniversary of her first horse trials.

More blue ribbons have followed after Tovar started riding Kilcoltrim Jacko and Shannondale Jordi in 2022. “Jacko” is an 11-year-old gray Irish Sport Horse gelding (Jack of Diamonds x Sky Rise) that had previously competed up to the three-star level with Georgina Ewell in England. “Jordi” is a 12-year-old bay Irish Sport Horse gelding (Shannondale Sarco St Ghyvan x Shannondale Duchess) that was competing in national events in Great Britain with Laura Cocking up to the equivalent of America’s Training level before coming to the United States.

Tovar’s first USEA Classic Series competition at the 2022 IEA H.T. marked a turning point. She and Jacko won the Novice Three-Day, leading after each phase and finishing on their dressage score of 25.0.

“It’s like a mini-FEI for us lower-level people that are a little nervous to go out and go around a two-star or something,” Tovar said. “We get to do the jogs and get dressed up, and obviously steeplechase is so fun and amazing. That’s obviously the best part, the endurance day.”

One unique aspect of the long-format brings out Tovar’s best, she said.

“I just get in my head so much and have horrendous anxiety, so going out for a trot in Phase A, it really loosens up my nerves, and I’m able to focus,” she said. “By the time I zip around steeplechase [Phase B], my adrenaline is up, so I’m like, ‘Now, I’m ready.’ The horses just love it.”

Competing in the classic series springboarded Tovar to more accomplishments in the sport in 2022. Between Jacko and Jordi, she recorded four first-place and 10 top-three finishes at the Beginner Novice and Novice levels. She finished the year in third-place in the USEA Adult Amateur of the Year standings on the USEA Leaderboard.

However, eventing is full of many physical and mental challenges, and one’s path in the sport is rarely ever linear or straightforward.

“I was in a rut after last year because I had such a good year last year and was like, ‘How am I going to top this?’” Tovar asked herself. “So, I needed something that was going to get me out of that scarcity mindset and into an abundant mindset.”

Tovar turned to Billy Demong, an Olympic gold medalist for the United States in Nordic combined skiing, for coaching. Although Tovar said that Demong was primarily coaching skiiers when she met him in January 2023, his lessons about the mental side of elite sports applied seamlessly for her to eventing.

She moved up to the Training level for the first time at the beginning of 2023 with Jacko, finishing third in her first event at the level at the Horse Trials at Majestic Oaks in Reddick, Florida, in January. The pair won the Training Rider division at the Three Lakes Winter II H.T. at Caudle Ranch in Groveland, Florida, in February.

Returning to IEA for the USEA Classic Series in 2023 marked another key moment in Tovar’s eventing journey. She competed with not one, but two entries in the long-format and called the experience “magical.”

“The hardest part was definitely the prep work,” Tovar said. “On Friday, I got off my horse Jordi, and I looked at my watch and realized I was riding for three hours. I went and trotted the Phase A and C to get them loose for dressage. Then we had dressage and after that steeplechase practice. I had been at the barn since 5 that morning.”

Just like how competing in the long-format led to subsequent triumphs in 2022, Tovar hopes for the same in 2023. She’s eying a move up to Modified with Jacko at the River Glen Summer H.T. in New Market, Tennessee, in August and then her first FEI competition in a one-star in the fall.

The month before this year’s IEA H.T., Tovar graduated from Colorado State. The week after the event, she got engaged to Jordan Warren.

There’s a special place in eventing for the Classic Series, and Tovar’s experiences in the long-format are going a long way to her success in the sport and beyond.

About the USEA Classic Series

The USEA Classic Series keeps the spirit of the classic long ­format three­-day events alive for Beginner Novice through the Preliminary levels, now including the Modified level too. Competitors can experience the rush of endurance day, including roads and tracks, steeplechase, the vet box, and cross­-country, as well as participate in formal veterinary inspections and educational activities with experts on the ins and outs of competing in a long ­format three-­day event. Riders who compete in a USEA Classic Series event during the year will have the chance to win a variety of prizes at the events from USEA sponsors. Click here to learn more about the USEA Classic Series.

The USEA would like to thank Bates Saddles, FITS, SmartPak Equine, Parker Equine Insurance, and Stackhouse & Ellis Saddles for sponsoring the USEA Classic Series.

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