Teaching Truths: Kaylawna Smith-Cook on Belief in Your System, Confidence, and Making It All Work

Welcome to EN’s latest educational series, “Teaching Truths”, in which we tap up-and-coming and established professionals for their core training philosophies. Having a strong foundation and a good system is key for our next trainer, Kaylawna Smith Cook. Kaylawna started K. Smith Equestrian to compete professionally, train and sell horses, and help students gain confidence and belief in themselves.

Kaylawna Smith-Cook and Passepartout at Rebecca Farm. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photogrpahy.

Kaylawna Smith-Cook has had a busy past few years. She launched her own business training, selling horses, and coaching – advancing her own riding career at the same time – while also managing to get married and give birth her first baby. This girl is, in one word, resilient.

Kaylawna’s riding resume is impressive: she has competed in Young Rider Championships for both eventing and spent some time focusing purely on dressage while working for Grand Prix rider Niki Clarke, competing up through the Prix St. Georges level. Eventually, she made her return to eventing to further her career as a professional. She has since moved up the ranks to the Advanced level with Passepartout, a 12-year-old German Sporthorse owned in partnership with Mark and Gretchen Cook.

Working alongside her mother, Tamie Smith, Kaylawna says she’s appreciated having so much expertise in her corner while she is in the process of building her own business. But Kaylawna is also intent on setting her own identity, establishing her own core training philosophy that’s a blend of all the mentors she’s learned from throughout her life.

We gathered Kaylawna’s thoughts as a new mother, a budding professional, and a newly minted Advanced rider:

Kaylawna Smith-Cook and and Tamie Smith. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

On setting up her own business after learning from Tamie through the years:

“Having her and utilizing her has helped me tremendously. I’ll always look to her for advice when making decisions, and it really helps that she is here with me and can be that second opinion or give me the confidence that I’m doing right by my horses and my clients.

I also know I’ve worked really hard – she has made me accountable and responsible and hasn’t just thrown everything at me. You only get a reputation and a first impression once, so building that, for me, has been super important. So I feel lucky to have her guiding me because she’s done all of this before.”

On her core training and teaching philosophy:

“Be confident in your system. I’m a big believer in having a routine at home and at shows. Your horse can come out different everyday, but having a solid routine helps you gain consistency. Horses are partners, so if you have that foundation in your system, you can be more confident.

I work with a lot of adult amateurs, and confidence is very important for me as a coach. I want all of my students and amateurs to be very confident, especially going to a show. I’m a bit of a go-getter – I’m likely to tell my students to go ahead and rip the Band-Aid off and believe in their preparation at home and their system.”

On the most impactful riding advice she’s received:

“We recently started working with (new Eventing High Performance dressage coach) Johann Hinnemann, who has been a tremendous help. He made a quote and it has stuck with me: ‘A supple horse is not necessarily submissive, but a submissive horse is for sure supple.’ I thought this was really important to remember in achieving connection through partnership and having the horse on the same page.”

Kaylawna Smith Cook & Passepartout. Photo by Sherry Stewart.

On setting goals as a young professional:

“I learned over time that competing and producing horses is something I love to do. When I was first starting my business, I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to be an upper-level rider and have my goal to represent the U.S.. But as I started competing more and gained support from owners (Kaylawna’s in-laws, Mark and Gretchen Cook, as well as Dr. Marcella Ashton have been wonderful supporters as owners and business partners. She also has had support from The MB Group LLC, who own the horse on which she did her first Advanced, MB Maiblume.), I really got a taste of it. We’ve also brought a horse over from Germany to sell, so we may incorporate that into the business as well.

Basically, I went from wanting to be at home and have a riding school to being a mom and wanting to travel around the world! I really do enjoy the eventing. When I was working in the dressage world for Niki Clarke, I missed the eventing and the eventing community. I had grown up around them and was really familiar. Now I can get the best of both worlds and continue to work with the adult amateurs in my program.”

On coming back to riding as a new mother:

“I worried that I wouldn’t be up to speed anymore, but I know I am confident in my horses and my partnership with them, so my first show back felt great. I wasn’t sure if I’d feel scared or nervous or different in any way, but as soon as I was able I was back out on a horse. It’s also important to know that you can make mistakes and not be perfect – having the right team, program, and coaching makes a huge difference.”