(Written by Andy Wolf, sportswriter for The Courier. Story originally published July 1, 2017)
The love for coaching is still there.
But after 30 years, Cindy Morehead decided it was time to step down.
She leaves behind a legacy as head coach of the University of Findlay western equestrian team since 2005 that includes four national titles in six years (2005, 2007, 2009, 2010).
Morehead helped lift the program from its infancy and helped turn it into a recognized national power.
“It’s been great,” Morehead said. “I really consider myself fortunate that I’ve been able to have a job doing something that I love.”
Morehead said the sometimes overwhelming nature of paperwork and the fact she didn’t have the time to show her own horses led to her decision to step down.
“You start to get out of touch, staying current with things,” Morehead said. “Keeping the students’ respect… and sometimes it’s a little hard when they don’t see you out in the industry.”
Spencer Zimmerman, a 2011 UF grad, will take over for Morehead after having assisted her the past three seasons.
She told Zimmerman of her retirement before the season began.
Convinced she would change her mind, it didn’t sink in for Zimmerman until the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) nationals where the Oilers finished third.
As a competitor under Morehead, Zimmerman was a national champion in novice horsemanship and advanced horsemanship.
“One thing I think about our team is we really pay attention. We not only develop great riders, a lot of them want to be professionals. Some of the others (schools), it’s a club sport for them. A lot of their kids think it’s something neat to do.
The attention to detail involves knowing exactly how to dress the riders, teaching proper technique and teaching how to get along with unfamiliar horses.
At competitions, each rider randomly draws a horse owned by the host school.
“We’ve got great instructors,” Morehead said. “They’ve all been successful nationally; some are judges.”
Both the English and Western teams captured their first national titles in 2001 to mark the first and only time a school won both in the same season.
Four years later, Steve Brown, the western coach since 1985, stepped down.
Morehead took over and guided her team to a national title as a rookie head coach.
“I tired to do new things, expect more from the kids, just different things,” Morehead said. “It was very exciting for me. It was probably one of the neatest things I had happen.”
The Oilers continued to thrive, winning national titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010 and finishing in the top five at the national meet in five of the last six seasons.
“Coach (Dick) Strahm would tease me now that we’re tied for national championships,” Morehead said of UF’s football coaching legend who secured four NAIA national titles (1979, 1992, 1995, 1997(before retiring in 1998. “He was worried I was going to get my fifth one the next few years. He was going to have to take me out for lunch.”
In 2015, Morehead accepted a retirement package offer from UF and retired from her full-time instructing position.
Moving into retirement has allowed Morehead to put the past 40 years into perspective.
“You just start thinking about all that has gone on here,” Morehead said. “There’s been different people that have been in and out of here, and all the students.”
Ready to accept the baton and fill her shoes is a home-grown coach in Zimmerman.
Morehead said hiring internally benefits the program greatly because, “We’ve had people come in that haven’t been here, and it’s really overwhelming because there’s a lot to it.”
“I definitely feel he’ll bring on some new, good things to the team and I’m sure that he’s going to also use some traditional type things that we’ve used as well,” Morehead said.
Zimmerman recognizes he has a tough act to follow but feels prepared and excited for the challenge that lies ahead.
To him, Morehead made it look easy.
“She knows all the riders personally,” Zimmerman said of Morehead’s passion. “She knows all their weaknesses, all of their strengths, where to put them, who to use as team riders. She’s very passionate about that.”
Zimmerman said Morehead had the ability to know when to be a coach and when to be a companion.
As a sophomore, Zimmerman recalled competing at a meet in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with three straight classes – a team and individual English, and an individual western – all right in a row.
“I screwed up in my team class. I was a little scared to come out of the arena because that’s where we get the points,” Zimmerman said. “I came out of the arena, she told me what I did wrong and turned around and helped me get ready for my next class, and wished me good luck.
“She just is a good support system in that nature. She cares for the team, cares for the individuals even though she looks like she could have a big bite. As a team member, you always wanted to make the coach proud.”
At 28 years old, Zimmerman is now one of the younger head coaches out there.
“Moving onto the coaching side, I really like the teaching,” said Zimmerman, who still competes professionally. “As an instructor, I enjoy connecting with the students and watching the students improve. The coaching kind of feeds my competitive side.”
Morehead said more than 100 students try out each year for only 40 roster spots. The team begins competing with its first meet in September and averages about one per month until regionals roll around in March.
To fill in the spare time, Morehead plans on helping her daughter, Katie, coach her team of middle and high schoolers.
Katie is a 2011 UF grad and competed under her mom. She was the 2009 Individual Open Horsemanship Champion, and was UF’s 2008-09 female Athlete of the Year. She is the only equestrian rider, male or female, to win the honor.
Katie moved on to coach Bowling Green State University’s equestrian teams and often found herself pitted against Cindy.
“Of course you don’t want to give her all the secrets, but she’s brought the team along really well,” Cindy said. “She’s kicked my butt a few times but that’s good, though. That’s what I want her to do.”
With retirement comes more time for visiting relatives, doing yard work around the house and taking out her Harley Davidson trike.
Zimmerman knows she’ll only be just a phone call away.
“The best thing about it after 40 years, you’re talking over 100 students every year,” Morehead said. “I’ll continue to run into them and keep in contact with them.”