angle-left My Atypical AQHA Story

My Atypical AQHA Story

AQHA Marketing and Publicity Intern Courtney Coffman looks back at what brought her to the American Quarter Horse Association International Headquarters in Amarillo.

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By Courtney Coffman

I will never forget my very first experience on a horse. I remember a time when I was 5 years old, visiting a family friend with my father. Being the naturally curious kid I was, my interest in horses was obvious to my dad, who thought it was a good idea to sit me on top of one of them. Trusting me to hold myself there, he let go, and I immediately tumbled off the other side and landed in a heap on the ground.

I am not here to shame my father for this slight mishap. That short time astride a horse is actually what brought me to Amarillo, chasing the AQHA dream. 

I did not grow up in a family with horses. I honestly didn’t grow up in a family with any agriculture background at all. Despite this, it became obvious to me very quickly that my passion was in agriculture. Thanks to my elementary, middle and high school best friend, I had the opportunity to be around the cattle on her family’s Shorthorn operation in our hometown of Huntington, Indiana. I started learning everything I could about cattle, the agricultural industry, and the ins and outs of farm life as fast as I could. When high school rolled around, this same friend dragged me to my first FFA meeting. And from that moment, I was hooked. 

As a Greenhand with little agriculture background, I quizzed my FFA adviser on the kinds of contests I might try and, hopefully, excel at (I have a competitive personality, so not being at least a little successful wasn’t an option). She decided that I should try, drumroll please, horse judging. I remember being puzzled, wondering how on earth do you even judge a horse? What is a set of reasons? What have I gotten myself into? The whole concept intimidated me. But I am not one to back down from a challenge, and it was a plus I didn’t have to get in a saddle and risk another experience 5-year-old me had had long before. 

Fast forward four years: I survived judging in high school. I survived so well that, shockingly, I wanted to continue judging at the college level. This left me with a lot of different options for school, but there was one that stuck out to me: Black Hawk College East Campus in Galva, Illinois. I saw the judging coach, Aaron Callahan, at many different national contests. But, I never found a way to introduce myself to him. So, I packed up my things and moved five hours from home on a whim that maybe judging horses is what I was supposed to be doing.

I can say confidently that I was unprepared to judge at the collegiate level. I left myself at a slight disadvantage with my lack of background in horses, but my stubborn personality helped me persist. With a fantastic coach and many extra hours giving sets of reasons, I ended up “hanging in there” on a very competitive Black Hawk East judging team. I greatly value the lessons I learned about judging horses and bringing home hardware (awards), but there was nothing more valuable than growing so close with the teammates of a lifetime, and having the two best home-away-from-home parents I could ask for. The Callahan’s supported, loved, pushed and disciplined all nine of their “kids.” And when it came time for all of us to leave the nest, they mentored and answered any questions we had about where we would fit in.

To me, they recommended West Texas A&M University. And as always, they were right. On yet another whim, I continued my collegiate judging career in Canyon, Texas. I learned vastly more than I could have imagined with John Pipkin as a judging coach. He surrounded us with brilliant AQHA horsemen and -women, submerging us completely in what the process is like to be a carded AQHA judge. We met countless leaders in the industry, saw some of the best horses in the country and grew professionally and personally all from the opportunities to judge horses. So, when I saw the job posting for the AQHA Marketing and Publicity internship, my only thought was: Why not? 

This internship has been nothing short of my expectations. I’ve had ample opportunities to learn about AQHA and the way it functions. I’ve had the ability to learn and sharpen skills that will be forever valuable as an employee anywhere, and I’ve met some of the most kind and hardworking individuals being a part of the AQHA family. Despite the trials and tribulations the employees and Association members face, we remain united in our love and advocacy of the American Quarter Horse. 

To this day, I get a weird look from people who ask me if I got involved in judging because of my showing career, when my answer is “No, not exactly.” But if I learned anything from this experience, it is that stepping out of your comfort zone is the most empowering and opportunistic thing you can do. Try that new activity, apply for that internship or job, try going to school far from home, do something that scares you. Be curious, be brave and don’t let the fear of failing keep you from trying, even if it gets you thrown off a horse. It may just turn into the experience of a lifetime.