Clinicians and equine experts will often say that horsemanship isn't a destination, but a journey. For most who work with horses, this rings true. Thoughtful trainers and horse owners work to make that journey more and more fulfilling with each step.
The Road to the Horse colt-starting challenge held last March in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was a glimpse not only into the genesis of a solid journey with the horse, but also into the methods of several men who have refined their ways of traveling on that journey with a horse.
The format of Road to the Horse is highly entertaining and educational, but at the same time dangerous. The horsemen force weeks' worth of progress with their horses into a little over three hours. To be sure, they're capable of doing so without damaging the horses, but the average horse owner is not.
Each contestant-for the explicit benefit of the audience-emphasizes that normally they wouldn't take a horse to the next step so quickly, but for the sake of the competition, they do. Further, the organizers have established the time limits to prevent wearing out the horses, and judges are under instruction to either penalize or disqualify any contestant who they feel is abusing his or her horse.
Chris Cox, Tommy Garland, Ken McNabb, and Mike Kevil each chose one unbroken horse from a band of ten 3 year olds off the Wood Ranch in Arkansas. On the first day, they were given one hour and twenty minutes with the horses in a 50-foot round pen, with a mandatory 10-minute break.
On the second day, the contestants had two hours and fifteen minutes with a 15-minute break. Then, after a short recess, each competitor had a chance to show off what he'd accomplished to a sold-out crowd utilizing the entire arena set up with an obstacle course.
In the end, Chris Cox won the event for the second year in a row. But the real story of Road to the Horse lies in the process employed, obstacles overcome, and adaptations each man made to start his horse down the right path.
After contestant introductions, the competition began by running the band of horses in the arena. As weanlings, the horses were halter broke. As yearlings and 2 year olds, they were brought in and dewormed, using a simple, gentle system in which one panel slowly swings against another, hemming in each horse.
The Wood Ranch horses were beautiful, well bred, and colorful. As they ran in the arena, the four contestants watched with a discerning eye, and then drew their order of choosing the horses from a hat.
Tommy Garland chose first. He's an accomplished Arabian showman and all-breed trainer. He has his own show on RFD-TV called "CPR for the Horse and Rider." He picked a buckskin by BP Smart Little Pep named WR Calismart, perhaps the flashiest horse in the herd.
Ken McNabb, a John Lyons Certified Trainer from Sheridan, Wyoming, also picked a flashy buckskin by the same sire named WR Easter Pep. Chris Cox, who's probably the hottest clinician going and was definitely the fan-favorite in Murfreesboro, went next. He picked a sorrel by Shining King Cody named WR Shinosmoke.
Mike Kevil, the mystery trainer, chose last. Kevil, a former judge for the event is author of several Western Horseman books on colt starting. He picked a palomino by Shining King Cody named WR Shinomite.
Thomas B. Saunders V, herd boss for Road to the Horse, chose the Wood remuda as the donating ranch. With owner Jody Wood, he picked the horses and he oversaw their care leading up to the competition. He knew both the horses and the men very well and had some interesting observations about why each chose what he did.
"The horse that each one of them picks tells me a lot about the clinician," Saunders said. "Tommy Garland's horse, I thought that was a good pick for him. The breeding on that horse is pretty racy. I don't know if it's fair to say in strict comparison to an Arabian, but he was going to look for a horse that would be fractious and flighty.
"On Ken McNabb's horse, it looked to me like he picked the horse you'd want to ride in Wyoming," Thomas continued. "He's a standout horse, really pretty and low-hocked. That horse that he picked suggested to me Ken McNabb's background.
"Chris Cox picked a big stout sorrel horse that was a lot like the horse he chose last year, a big rangy horse with a lot of daylight under him. He's just a little bit cocky and abrasive in his attitude, which really reminds me a lot of Chris Cox. The horse that Mike Kevil picked, he picked because he had three other picks that were already gone. He picked the horse I would have picked. I think he picked the best horse left."
After Saunders and his men sorted the picks from the herd, Road to the Horse volunteers got busy setting up four temporary, identical sets of panels. With the purpose and efficiency a Texas cowboy crew is known for, they brought each horse into the massive arena individually and into the designated round pens.
The gate man didn't shut the gate quickly enough on Cox's horse and he escaped. Later Cox would say that experience set him back, and he had to work through a lack of respect from the horse due to the mistake.
Nevertheless, all four men jumped into action.
Quickly, the biggest problem with the format and contest became obvious. There was no way to watch every man through every step of his journey.
The competition is unique and entertaining for those who cherish good horsemanship and love learning. There are no over-the-top pyrotechnics or screaming announcers, but the drama is palpable and the action is difficult to turn away from.
Radio personality Rick Lamb and six-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association All-Around Cowboy Larry Mahan acted as masters of ceremony during the event, drawing attention to particular things the trainers were working on. These emcees provided a low-key, even pace to the event and, admirably, didn't make any attempts to overshadow the trainers' work. Once, however, Mike Kevil offered Mahan the chance to ride his colt as the animal kicked up over his head when introduced to the saddle.
The differences among the horses were the first things that set the competitors' progress on different trajectories. Despite being closely related and handled similarly, every horse presented a unique challenge.
McNabb had the most difficulty catching his horse. The buckskin would allow him near enough to touch his shoulder, enticing him to continue, then wouldn't allow him to get to his head.
Kevil had similar problems with his palomino, but that horse had a more defiant streak. Once, he even struck the cowboy. Kevil joked that he was teaching him to shake hands.
Garland and Cox made the fastest progress. Garland's buckskin was very cooperative-yet he tended to shut off the trainer from his right side. Cox's sorrel was constantly challenging the Australian-turned-Texan for dominance, but in more subversive ways than the palomino.
In general terms, Garland took the most smothering approach, presenting his horse with obstacles in the round pen, crawling all over him, sacking him out in a variety of ways, and never letting the horse's attention wander.
Cox, meanwhile, took the most direct approach. He insisted on certain actions and attitudes from the sorrel and allowed him no wiggle room. He'd already taken five of his mandatory ten minutes worth of break time, and was nearing the end of the first day's session.
Under saddle in the round pen, the horse would kick out at the same point on every circle. Rather than end his session on a bad note, Cox broke the rules and continued to work the horse through the rough spot. He was penalized 10 minutes the following day, but to work the horse through the issue was more important to Cox at the time.
McNabb waited on his horse more than the other competitors, allowing him to find comfort and trust.
Kevil perhaps had the toughest nut to crack and wasn't able to get his mount to progress as quickly as the others.
However, each man was able to command his horse's undivided attention in his own way. For observers, it was a wonderful opportunity to see how different styles can work with different horses and how parts of each man's program could've been adapted to another's horse for improved results.
For example, Cox and Garland were able to catch their horses earlier than the other two, probably due to the horses' temperaments, so they were the early front-runners after Day One.
Had McNabb and Kevil roped their horses sooner-which they ended up having to do-they might've kept pace with the other two. In fact, that was McNabb's greatest regret after the first day.
"If I was going to do this over, there are two things I would have done different," McNabb said. "I should have roped him the minute I walked in the pen, and I would have moved him a lot more on the fence. I'm a big proponent of these competitions. They're the best thing in the natural horsemanship world right now, but that clock is hard. An hour and ten minutes, and that horse doesn't wear a watch."
The judges, for their part, have one of the toughest evaluation jobs in any equine contest. There are so many different training styles and equine attitudes to reconcile, it's a wonder they don't tear their hair out.
"We have a lot of different categories that we score them in," said one judge, Terry Crofoot. "These categories include presentation of the idea to the horse, level of understanding the horse exhibits, being able to get forward motion, and being able to get lateral flexion in the neck and the hindquarters. We want the horse's demeanor at the end of the session to be as good or better than when the contestants started. We judge the way each guy adapts to the situation and is able to change as needed. There is also a category for degree of difficulty."
Crofoot, along with Robert M. Miller, DVM, Jack Brainard, Toni Warvell, and James Gholson were charged with picking one man above the rest.
In the end, each competitor had to perform rail work-at a walk, trot, and canter-and pick up all four feet. Then each one had to complete an obstacle course that included a pole-bending pattern, a raised rail, a tarp crossing, poles, small jumps, a rope-swinging element, a log drag, and, finally, a small, plastic swimming pool filled with shavings. Then the contestants were allowed a freestyle portion to demonstrate partnership, trust, and understanding.
Kevil drew the first position and did all his horse would allow. There were good and bad surprises, but he took the opportunity to bring the horse along and develop a rapport with the audience.
Cox went next. While being bridled, his horse got away, seemingly opening the door for Garland, who up to that point had his horse the furthest along. Shortly, Cox was able to catch his horse and take him through all the required obstacles. However, his work was really evidenced in the freestyle. He was able to attain more control at faster speeds than his competitors. At the end, he stood on his horse and raised his hat in the Road to the Horse tradition.
Garland's run was smooth and controlled, but not fast. His one mistake was his inability to get his horse to give his right front foot. Regardless, Garland was able to crawl under the horse to demonstrate how calm the horse became about activity around his underside, despite a rough start in that department.
"I thought it felt pretty good," Garland said. "The ultimate thing for that horse was when I crawled under his belly because he was real funny about his legs. That showed me he was getting somewhere."
McNabb perhaps made the biggest turnaround in his horse. His slow start lowered expectations, but in the end, his freestyle and obstacle-course work demonstrated that his methods worked-but he was probably too far behind by that point to rally enough for the win.
In the end, it came down to Chris Cox and Tommy Garland. While all the men wanted to win, they each took what the horse was willing to give in the time allotted. Not one of them sacrificed the horse's long-term or short-term well-being in an attempt to win.
When Cox was named the champion, the crowd erupted. As the defending champion, he was easily the fans' choice.
"I've been doing this for 20 years and worked hard at it, and I'm very blessed and thankful that people are appreciative of it," he said at the conclusion of the event.