When Equestrian Team Coach Theresa O’Keefe enters the arena to begin a lesson, she undergoes a startling transformation, transcending her role as a Knox sophomore. Where she was once a peer, fretting about her housing options for the coming year, she becomes a medium, an intermediary between the horses and the riders.
Such an intermediary is a necessity, for the team provides lessons to anyone from highly competent riders to students who have never ridden. Thus, it is imperative that O’Keefe works to dismantle any preconceived notions about equestrian, horses and the relationship between riders and equines. She stands dead center in the dusty stadium, a locus of calm authority, directing novice riders as they canter, trot and post. Beyond providing logistical advice to aid her students in mastering the mechanics of riding, O’Keefe endeavors to engender a sense of shared responsibility and kinship between horse and rider.
Hailing from Blue Grass, Iowa, O’Keefe has been taking formal riding lessons since she was seven, showing since she was eight and teaching since she was 15. She now teaches at three different barns, including Woodland View where she provides Varsity and Junior Varsity lessons two evenings per week.
“The one area of my life where I feel particularly confident and capable is horses,” she says.
This confidence is translated into the coaching style O’Keefe favors, which is eminently personal. She addresses riders and horses by name, acknowledging their individual idiosyncrasies and working to develop their strengths. With only a handful of riders in the ring at one time, her focus is both daunting and reassuring in its intensity.
Equestrian team members are not the only ones to benefit from O’Keefe’s scrutiny. Individual equines, too, fall under her purview.
“My favorite thing about horses is that they’re funny,” O’Keefe laughs. “They’re not the smartest animals in the world, but they all are very individualistic and they all have their own quirks and personalities and issues and bonuses that come along with each of them.”
Although team lessons take place within an indoor arena not 10 minutes from campus, Woodland View Farm seems to transport its inhabitants to another dimension entirely. Chickens cluck and coo throughout the barn, providing a countermelody to the snuffle and snorting of the horses still in their pens. The rumbling peace of the stables serves as a complement to the rhythmic plodding of beginner riders maneuvering horses around barrels, advanced riders perched upon the obstacles like bygone idols. Here, students are able to learn and commune with horses in an organic environment, which seems primed for self-reflection.
The quaint nature of the setting underscores the broad legacy of equestrianism, which has undergone a myriad of transformations throughout the years.
“I think it’s changed because we are moving away from the John Waynes of the equestrian world. We do not want to have a crippling, exhausting relationship with the horse … We want a bond,” O’Keefe says.
O’Keefe stresses the importance of building a loving, trusting relationship between horse and rider.
“Horses and riders are very similar to parents and children. If you have an abusive parent/child relationship, you have a situation where, although the child may obey, it’s based on fear and mistrust. It’s a very submissive relationship, rather than a respectful relationship.”
The development of a mutualistic relationship between horses and riders provides equestrians with the opportunity to introspect and develop greater understandings of their own psyches.
“I love riding because I think it parallels us as individuals. The way you act, the way that you respond, the way you deal, is very paralleled with the horse and how they respond,” says O’Keefe
But Equestrian Team offers more than the opportunity for self-examination. O’Keefe describes the sport as a social and physical outlet that bolsters her confidence and communication skills. She believes training with horses allows a person to maintain a concentrated balance of humility and spirit.
As for team members, O’Keefe considers equestrian to be a perpetual exercise in accountability.
“It’s a lot of responsibility that comes down to when things go right, do I credit it to me or do I credit it to the horse? When things go wrong, it’s probably my fault. I am responsible for the product that I am getting.”
O’Keefe cites equestrian as one of her great passions. Her fervor for the sport can be partially attributed to the vast array of techniques and knowledge that horseback riding offers.
“It never, ever stops. You never quit learning. There are so many branches, and so many people, and so far you can go. You never plateau if you can find someone to learn from,” she says.
Despite plans to graduate from Knox in March of 2017, O’Keefe does not intend to leave the Equestrian Team bereft. She hopes to continue to provide a unique, inclusive outlet which allows members to gain insight into both themselves and horses.
“I am going to try to stay on as coach after I graduate,” O’Keefe asserts.