Penn Township woman named one of top 50 riding instructors in U.S.
Karen Pikovsky did not have a horse of her own as a little girl in Robinson, west of Pittsburgh.
She's certainly making up for lost time.
Pikovsky and her husband, Joe, own Darby Downs Equestrian Center. Their barn at the top of Paintertown Road off Route 130 in Penn Township can hold 30 horses. Twenty-two horses live there now, and seven of those are Pikovsky's.
"I love the horses," she said. "(I was) one of those teenage girls that have horses plastered all over her walls as a child. And my parents didn't have the funds back then so that's why when I got out of school and started working on this on my own, it just kind of escalated.
"Right now I have seven. At one point I had 12. I've scaled down over the years but I have seven of my own."
She also loves horsemanship. Her dedication generated recognition this year from the American Riding Instructors Association, which listed Pikovsky as one of the top 50 instructors in America. Instructors are nominated for the award by their students.
In 2006, she was named Certified Horsemanship Association Instructor of the Year.
All of which might leave her a little too big for her britches, or perhaps searching for a bigger hat.
But, no. Horses have a way of keeping rider ego in check. Consider, as an example, this lesson on horse slobber:
First, meet Kim Harden, who moved with her husband and son to Western Pennsylvania from upstate New York. When the family came south, her riding equipment came with them.
Harden took her second riding lesson at Darby Downs on Monday, first preparing her steed, a tall 15-year-old thoroughbred named Dane. She brushed him, wiped him down, put pads on his legs and every once in a while, planted a big kiss on his pancake-size cheek.
All the while, Dane drooled.
The drool is a result of the season, Pikovsky explained, when the grasses that are the favorite among the horses have been all but nibbled away and clover, for the horses that like it, is the main course on the pasture menu. Eat a lot of clover and you'll come back home drooling, Pikovksy said.
It was evident Monday afternoon that Dane really likes clover. Student Harden and Instructor Pikovsky were able to sidestep the drool until the bridle time when Harden and Pikovsky prepared to slip a bit into Dane's mouth. He spun his head and, as though he'd been preparing for just this moment, spat -- we kid you not -- what looked like a healthy quart of drool on Harden's elbow and forearm.
Yet Pikovsky and Harden do not even blink at horse drool. They finished the bridling and various other riding preparation tasks before Harden at last reached for a towel and wiped off her right arm, soaked and still gleaming with horse spit.
Pikovsky said she has another student who keeps a bucket handy for just such drooling events.
Soon, rider, student and horse were outside in a training corral, learning the first steps of what is called dressage (pronounced druh- saj , emphasis on second syllable) in riding competition circles. The word is French, literally meaning training. In dressage, horse and rider exhibit their skills at starting, stopping, turning and other challenges.
"My goal is really to meet the goals of my riders," Pikovsky said. "We do goal-setting. I'm not just someone walks through the door and I'll take their money and stand on the sidelines and talk to somebody else for 45 minutes.
"They're really getting their money's worth for the lesson. I don't stop talking the whole time."
Sure enough, there was Pikovsky in the ring, walking beside Harden and Dane, advising on butt location in the saddle, holding tight to the reins, pointing one's thumbs and letting the horse know there is a rider upon him with good intentions.
Early in the lesson, Harden was instructed to drop her feet from the stirrups and to use her body placement, reins and leg pressure to compel Dane to walk and then trot slowly. Riding without feet in the stirrups seems akin to driving to the local market using only your pinkie fingers on the steering wheel. It's possible but it's not easy.
The instructor explained to Harden that the no-stirrup work was an exercise toward understanding the intricacies of riding.
Pikovsky, who will turn 40 this year, has been an instructor for 12 years and a rider since her teens. She regularly travels to weekend competitions, pulling a three-horse trailer. One of her horses, Star Player, known as Steel around the barn, is her favorite and frequent partner in dressage and jumping competitions. Another favorite is Lucky, a 4-year-old thoroughbred she has been training for two years.
"He's a baby," Pikovsky says of Lucky. "He likes to get into trouble like most babies do. Most of my horses are ex-thoroughbreds off the track. He raced once or twice, and that was it and they decided he couldn't make it.
"I have several people that when they have a racehorse that isn't working out for them, they'll call me and say 'I have one, do you want him?' and we go from that point. Some of them I've bought sight-unseen and other ones I'll go and look at them. I usually don't even ride them when I get them, I just let them hang out for a little bit, come down for a little bit and then we work with them from there."
The facility is named for Pikovsky's first horse, Darby.
"He was my very first horse," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "He prompted me to start teaching because we did the show circuit mainly in this area. And he won everything. And then as he got older he kind of told me I'm tired of it.
"We really bought the farm for him. He lived until he was about 25 and two years ago he passed away. He was just a stocky, short little quarter horse. You could do anything with him and we had so much fun with him. He's what everything's about."
She offers training sessions on weekdays and schedules sessions for a variety of students from teenagers to middle-aged women, like Harden, and another Darby Downs regular, Monica Hrovath.
Hrovath, of Penn Township, said she loves the 30-acre facility and its owners, and volunteers there any time she can and probably more than she should.
Hrovath, a nurse at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, said she came across Darby Downs while taking one of her sons to another activity. She already owned a horse and was boarding him and taking lessons at another barn when she decided to transfer to Darby Downs.
She eventually sold her first horse and bought another one, named Ben.
"This is my dream; this is my passion, all I've ever wanted since I was a little girl," Hrovath said. "Other girls dreamed about getting married and having babies, and I just dreamt about horses all the time."
She volunteers her work inside and outside the barn.
"Let's put it this way: I'm probably here seven days a week," said Hrovath, the mother of three young men.
"My kids, they have no interest (in riding) and I'm glad because it costs so much money and I want the money to be spent on me, not on them.
"I'm real happy here. We have a nice mix of young people. We have a lot of middle-aged women. Some barns are real high pressure showing. This barn isn't. This barn is more about what I want to learn."
Pikovsky and her husband plan to travel to the annual riding instructor association's conference in Florida later this year.
More information about the equestrian center is available at www.darbydowns.org .