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From Full Time Trainer to NCEA Coach, What are the Differences?

GoHorseShow intern Kendall Lance gets insight from trainers turned NCEA Coaches Brad Kearns, Nancy Renfro, and Melissa Dukes about their career change. What are the differences?

Over the last few years, as the popularity of NCEA participation has increased, doors have been opening for trainers to share their knowledge in a different format – as coaches in the National Collegiate Equestrian Association.

We asked Melissa Dukes of Texas Christian University, Brad Kearns of Southern Methodist University, and Nancy Renfro of UC Davis to share their stories of how they became collegiate coaches.

Additionally, they touch on how their judging experiences have impacted their careers, the difference between coaching for the AQHA and NCEA, and some of the highlights of being a collegiate coach.

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Melissa Dukes
Dukes is in her 9th season as Head Western Coach of TCU. She described getting hired at her alma mater as a “god-wink” because Head Coach Haley Schoolfield realized she was supposed to call her about the job while she was taking a student on a visit.

Soon after, her career changed from co-owning Dukes performance horses and training numerous world and congress champions to being a full-time collegiate coach. She still finds time to judge horse shows however, such as the 2023 All-American Quarter Horse Congress.

Dukes finds her judging experiences beneficial for her collegiate team. “The more knowledge you can bring to your coaching chair, the better.”

When asked about the difference between coaching for AQHA shows and NCEA competition, Dukes emphasized the catch riding ability of her athletes. She explained “these athletes are riding unfamiliar stock…NCEA riders have 4 minutes to learn a horse, so it’s a challenge to help them figure these horses out quickly and sometimes hope for the best.

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Dukes has definitely figured this challenge out, as she was named the dual-discipline western coach of the year for 2023. Along with the team’s performances in the arena, she also views recognition for her students’ hard work in the classroom as a highlight.

Brad Kearns
Kearns is in his 3rd season with SMU, coming off winning the 2023 National Championship. His journey to becoming the Associate-Head Coach started when former SMU coach Mckenzie Lantz went back to coach at the University of Georgia, her alma mater.

Brad explained that he “texted Head Coach Carol Gwin some names of some possible candidates for the job and jokingly asked what the qualifications were. She called me and we talked about it and agreed to reconnect the next day to talk more.”

He said that the opportunity to spend more time with his daughter, Nya, was too good to pass up, so he took the job. The blossoming team at SMU was a great fit for Kearns, as he was able to bring his wealth of knowledge as an accomplished trainer and judge to his student athletes.

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From his perspective as a judge, Kearns expressed that “the collegiate athletes are all excellent riders, but they need eyes on the ground to help them to stay at the top of their game.

Features of coaching collegiate riders that differ from typical shows he noted include showing in unfamiliar arenas, cheering from spectators, and having to make split second decisions on unfamiliar horses.

Kearns’ personal coaching highlight is “getting to be part of the sport of equestrian with my daughter and 39 other athletes that each year become family.”

Nancy Renfro
Renfro is in her second season, but first full year with the Aggies as the Horsemanship Coach. She had “always followed the NCEA…and had clients that had gone on to compete at six universities.”

When the opportunity to help improve the western side of UC Davis’ team opened, she took the gig. Renfro herself is a multiple world champion and has helped many clients to the same feat.

She still finds time to judge, most recently being the Quarter Horse Congress alongside Dukes. She views this expertise as an advantage in the collegiate world because “as a judge you see different styles and trends (good and bad) which helps me coach my team to be at their best.”  

Renfro explained that the difference between training outside clients and coaching in college is “in AQHA, the horses are in training and clients have time to learn their horse and become a team with that horse. In NCEA, the girls have to adapt to many different horses.”

In her time as a collegiate coach so far, she notes leading the horsemanship team to a 7-2 performance to help UC Davis win their first ever ECAC Conference Championship as a highlight.

Besides successes in the arena, she also explained how great it is to be a part of the team spirit, watching her athletes grow in confidence and witnessing the incredible veterinary care the horses receive at UC Davis.

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While all these trainers turned coaches have seen success for their teams in terms of points won and high scores, they all view getting to be part of a team as what’s great about being a collegiate coach.

They must teach their riders to learn how to ride their horse in only four minutes and make quick decisions in the show pen.

At the end of the day, the bonds between teammates and coaches, and the love of horses is what makes collegiate equestrian special.


About the Author: Kendall Lance is a third year at the University of California, Davis studying Communications and Professional Writing. Along with her studies, she serves as the Horsemanship captain of UC Davis’ Division One Equestrian team, and Communications Director of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. Before entering college, she showed the all-around at AQHA and APHA competitions.
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