2009 Road to the Horse: A Truly Unbridled Event

Three unbroken colts, three top trainers, two intense days, thousands of zealous fans--Road to the Horse is one wild ride.
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Three unbroken colts, three top trainers, two intense days, thousands of zealous fans--Road to the Horse is one wild ride.


Photo by Alana Harrison

Start--and ride--a barely-been-touched 3-year-old in front of thousands of spectators? Talk about nerve-racking. But this is the basis of the juggernaut that has become the Road to the Horse Colt-Starting Competition (RTTH). If you're not familiar with the event, here's the lowdown: Three renowned trainers each select an unbroken colt from a band of 10 horses. Throughout the two days of competition, the trainers have three hours to establish a rapport with their colts. Using their individual horsemanship methods, the trainers must desensitize their horses enough to mount up for a final test of skill via an obstacle course. A team of judges determines the winner.

Horse & Rider On the Scene
Editorial Coordinator Erin Sullivan Haynes and I were pumped to attend the 2009 RTTH (read Erin's personal account as a RTTH newbie). And, a fun time, we did have. Barring a minor inconvenience (my luggage missed our flight from Dallas to Nashville), Erin and I made it to RTTH's new locale, Williamson County Ag Expo Park in Franklin, Tenn. No competition takes place on Friday night, but the trade show is unveiled--and is immediately mobbed by hundreds (if not thousands) of drooling shoppers, whether they're looking for bargains or splurges. This scene is, however, utterly torturous to those of us with thinner wallets. Occupational hazard, I suppose.A Chance Encounter
After making the traditional trade-show lap, Erin and I emerged empty-handed, but had the good fortune of running into Dan Keen and his wife, Kelley. Dan is a life-long trainer, who coined the term and principle of "Wenglish," a combination of Western and English training (more on this in an upcoming issue of H&R). Dan builds willingness and confidence by teaching first the horse, then the owner, how to build a foundation to ensure success in any discipline, at any level. His talents were on display at last year's Extreme Mustang Makeover at which he finished third with his superstar Mustang, Troubador (watch a video of Dan's ride). Dan and his family currently live and operate out of Round Top, Texas. (To read two of Dan's recent articles in H&R, see our January '09 issue for "The Buck Stops Here," and our April '09 issue for "Cure That Spook!" For more info on Dan and his training program, go to dankeenhorsemanship.com.)Erin and I had quite a bit of fun chatting with Dan and his wife. By the time our conversation ended, I think we'd devised some seemingly absurd plan in which Erin and I were going to bring our horses to his place for f-r-e-e training--being that she rides Western, and I do the hunter/jumper thing. We do, however, feel that Dan has a lot to offer our readers and plan to work with him more in the future.And, Erin and I have to admit (no disrespect to Kelley), but Dan is one super-cute cowboy. Those pics in the mag don't quite do him justice. And, by the way, Dan's the nephew of another "Keen" you might of heard of, songwriter Robert Earl Keen.Countdown Begins
Exhausted and starving, we booked it to the hotel for a late dinner. It was an excellent eavesdropping opportunity, as many of the hotel diners were RTTHers... interesting to hear their opinions and winner predictions after a cocktail or two. After gleaning some juicy gossip, we called it a night.Saturday, March 14: Almost game time. The preliminaries were over (RTTH's producer Tootie Bland always puts on a fab opening ceremonies show including a blow-out performance by the All-American Cowgirl Chicks and this year's country singer, Susie Dobbs).Erin and I got to hang in the private press room (with free coffee and cookies to our delight) and chat with Tootie, several of the RTTH judges; Randy Dunn, who provided the Remuda horses from his Bath Brothers Ranch in Laramie, Wyo.; and RTTH emcee, the venerable Rick Lamb.I consider myself a semi-RTTH veteran, this being my third competition to attend--and I have to say I really could offer no predictions on this year's winner. As day #1's competition began, I grabbed my camera and hit the dust of the Williamson coliseum to get up close and personal with this year's competitors.If you missed this year's "Road," or want a recap, here are some 2009 RTTH stats and a photo gallery of the event.2009 RTTH FAST FACTS
The locale: Franklin, Tenn.; Williamson County Ag Expo ParkThe players: Returning RTTH competitor Tommy Garland, Powhatan, Va.; renowned horseman John Lyons, Parachute, Colo.; and RTTH newcomer Richard Winters, Ojai, Calif.The horses: Ten 3-year-old colts, owned by Randy and Laurie Dunn of Bath Brothers Ranch in Laramie, Wyo. "I'm really glad I was able to bring my horses into this venue with this high caliber of trainers," Randy said.The judges: Bob Moorhouse; Toni Warvell; Robert M. Miller, DVM; Jack Brainard; Dr. Jim Heird; Marian BuehlerRTTH owner & producer: Cowgirl diva, Tootie BlandEmcee: Rick Lamb, host of the radio programs "The Horse Show with Rick Lamb" and "The Horse Show Minute"The booty: Gist Silversmith RTTH Champion engraved belt buckle; Championship Memorial Saddle by Martin Saddlery (with silver encrusted ruby conchos that say "In Memory of Steven 'Dooky' Bland," Tootie's late husband); an original Peter Grant painting (this year's titled "On the Road"); $10,000 in cash; $15,000 donation to winner's chosen charity (this year's charity: Focus on the Family); and, of course, RTTH bragging rights.Tickets sold: More than 6,000.Most $$$ paid for a ticket: $950 on eBay.Generous gift: Tootie donated tickets to Tennessee's Williamson County 4-H members. (For more info, see our July '09 issue's "Fun" page in our Your Horse Your Life department.)Attendees from: ...as far away as Denmark, Finland, France and Paraguay; plus, soldier Sarah Rosnick who was serving in Iraq at the time the '09 tickets went on sale (Tootie made sure she got a ticket); the president of Finland's AQHA; French journalist of Cheval Pratique magazine, Elisabeth de corbigny (this French pub runs a feature on RTTH every year)Obstacle course, extreme: Think your broke horse could do this? Competitors had to navigate an obstacle course of poles, jumps, bags of shavings, sacks, a tarp, dragging a log to a "mystery" obstacle (a cage with two live chickens!)--and the ultimate challenge: navigating colts through a nightmarish (that is, for horses, especially young ones) pool-noodle-constructed obstacle.Scary moment: For the "freestyle" part of the obstacle course/final test, John, who'd recently undergone knee-replacement surgery, positioned himself to execute the RTTH-trademark maneuver of standing on the horse's back. The audience gasped simultaneously, as did I, behind my camera's lens. Ever the jokester, John chuckled at teasing the crowd.In case you haven't heard: ...Richard Winters was named 2009 RTTH champion. He said he trained his selected 2006 AQHA bay colt, Plenty Brown Hancock, just as he would in any other setting on any other day, utilizing the fundamentals of natural horsemanship.RTTH "firsts": Richard rode his colt in the "final test"/obstacle course in only a halter, making him the first RTTH champ to win riding bitless. And for his freestyle performance, he had a calf released into the arena--another uber-impressive RTTH first.More on Winters: NRCHA A-rated judge; holds NRCHA world championship titles; 2007 Equine Experience $10,000 Colt Starting Challenge champion; received 2007 Monty Roberts Equitarian Award for outstanding achievement in horse/human relationships; his TV show "Richard Winters Horsemanship" can be viewed on Dish Network, channel 9411The fam & homestead: Richard, his wife, Cheryl, and their two children, Joseph and Sarah, operate their horsemanship center from the historic and prestigious Thacher School in Ojai, Calif. (For more information, go to wintersranch.com.)Most unusual guests: An entourage of chickens--no they weren't there for dinner. The judges and Tootie incorporated these "fowl" surprises into the competitors' obstacle course's final test. Tootie herself participated in a "halftime" contest with close friend and Extreme Mustang Makeover producer Patti Colbert, in which the chickens played a rather integral role (you'll have to watch the video for full comprehension). Both Tootie and Patti received Rickrageous jackets, courtesy of "Filthy Rich's" Sharon Miller, of Courpus Christi, Texas. Mega-bling does not remotely do these jackets justice (see photo gallery).Fave quote: "I had to hide those chickens for three days from everyone. This took some serious planning, and at one time, I was sure I was going to have to sneak them into my hotel room," Tootie said. "Eventually I found another hiding place, but the others were getting too close to discovering them. Code word for the chickens: 'Broken Arrow!'"VIP party: Erin and I lucked out and got to hang with the competitors, judges, Rick Lamb, Tootie and other RTTH bigwigs at the Saturday-night post-competition dinner banquet. Susie Dobbs and the Way Out West Band headlined while we stuffed our faces and blabbed. And Rick Lamb left us with a sobering thought as we headed back to our hotels, "Day #2 can change everything, and this year's not an exception!"H&R bragging rights:H&R's go-to marketing gal, Shelly Mix, announced the winner at this year's "Road." (See photo gallery.)What's next? Keep up with HorseandRider.com and the magazine, as well as www.roadtothehorse.com for leads on next year's RTTH.ATTENTION READERS!
We would love to hear about your experiences at this year's RTTH or past competitions. Tell us what you thought about the contestants and the judge's selection of Richard Winters as champion. Would you like to read articles with any of this year's competitors (or past ones) in H&R? Let us know by emailing us at HorseandRider@EquiNetwork.com; posting a comment on our new blog On Staff at Horse & Rider; or writing to us at Horse & Rider, 2000 S. Stemmons Freeway, Suite 101, Lake Dallas, Texas 75065.To relive 2009's Road to the Horse Colt-Staring Competition...
> VIEW THE 2009 ROAD TO THE HORSE PHOTO GALLERY