Thursday, July 27, 2017

Road To The Horse 2017: A Celebration of the Cowgirl

While the Road To The Horse (RTTH) colt starting championship's format changes little from year to year, producer and owner Tootie Bland reaches deeply into her imagination to present interesting and innovative programs to excite and engage her audience.

However, change may be in order to prevent the show from becoming a boring parody.  Why?  There simply are not enough stars in the trainer/clinician universe to maintain interest.  There are many top-flight trainers, but very few are successful and entertaining enough to sell out Altel Arena at The Kentucky Horse Park.  Once beyond Craig Cameron, Parrelli, Lyons and Clinton Anderson, not to mention Chris Cox, four time undefeated champion of RTTH, the pool becomes very shallow.

This year's contest was billed as a Celebration of the Cowgirl, but seemed to walk a fine line, perhaps unintentionally, between a contest of skilled competitors and a feminist forum. Tootie Bland often said that this event will/would prove that women are as good as the men.  Anyone with their wits about them knows that horsewomen are every bit as skilled and generally more empathetic than their male counterparts.  Woman have competed at RTTH in the past and done very well, thank you.   Several years ago Sarah Dawson, competing against both men and women, lead until the last day of the competition when she was thrown from her horse.  Little was made of the fact that Sarah was a young woman and the daughter of former RTTH winner Richard Winters.  And I don't remember the sequin spangled Bland cheerleading like a spastic marionette for Sarah, or Obie Schlom, the other female competitor of that year.

The lack of star power almost surely reduced the gate in 2017, and I am just as certain that there were far fewer men in attendance than in the past.  Men, it seems (I'm a guy), don't seem to be very interested in watching women compete athletically.  What a shame, because one of the women, Vicki Wilson, put on a hell of a show and could/can compete toe to toe with any of her male counterparts.

The Running of the Remuda (horses are provided by Texas' 6666 ranch) heralds the beginning of each Road To The Horse, and this year's herd was memorable because of two of its 3 year old cast members: a big gorgeous gray that came to be know as Checkers and hip #7, a feisty, running, bucking, kicking brat of a horse that everyone fell for immediately.  Incidentally, #7 was not chosen by any of the four competitors but was the backup choice by three of the women.

This is 2015's remuda.**

A cowboy from the 6666 ranch.  The wranglers manage the remuda and the horses selected by the four competitors.**

Tootie wanted a rodeo atmosphere for the RTTH and five years ago brought aboard the annoying magpie, Matt West.  He is an emcee for PBR (Professional Bull Riders) events nationally and in Canada.  I hear his voice and want to reach for a PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer).  He replaced the low-key and well-liked Rick Lamb, host of the nationally known television program, The Horse Show. Believe me it has been all down hill since Rick was sidelined.  West has not profited from his exposure to this event.   Over the years, Wests seems to have gained little or no insight into the competition and simply parrots the remarks of any celebrity he can buttonhole. Repetition, of course, breeds contempt.  His specialty is the irritatingly juvenile count-down, you know: 10, 9, 8... before introducing any act or change of direction in the program. Ugh!

Worse still was his co-host Stacy Westfall, (a woman by the way), winner of the RTTH in 2006.  She is also a former NRHA Freestyle Reining Competition champion.  Her ride sans bridle created  a sensation and the YouTube video of her run has been viewed more than 1,000,000 times.  Today she competes successfully in mounted shooting, and with her husband Jesse, presents clinics worldwide, while still finding time to train horses and produce How To videos.  On the street she would have a ton of CRED.   I hate to say it, but she was a complete zero, adding little and all but disappearing on day two of the event.

Originally Barbara Cox, wife of Chris Cox, was scheduled to compete.  But due to a very serious back operation was unable to participate.  In all likelihood her competitive career is over due to the serious nature of her spinal surgery.  Her obligations as wife and mother had a significant influence on her decision to leave competition.

My wife, Carol and Chris Cox.  Chris told Carol a great deal about his wife's condition **

Rachelle Valentine worked as an intern with Clinton Anderson, worked with Dean Locke and is now an assistant trainer for Sean Patrick in Florida, From the beginning it seemed that the moment was too big for her as she made several mistakes with her gelding, the huge gray she named Checkers. And because of Checker's size, the insipid Matt West christened him "Chubby" Checkers after the 1960's singer who gave us the hit tune, The Twist.  

Like nearly all of the 6666 horses, Checkers was difficult to move forward.  Hard to imagine after you see them race the arena over and over again.  The members of the remuda are more or less wild horses with little in their past to prepare them for these three days, three of the most important days of their lives.  They know the way of the herd and little else and have spent a year or two on the plains of Texas without human contact.  Once under saddle, Checkers gave Rachelle all she could handle. But Valentine's problems began during one of the mandatory rest breaks for Checkers. On day one the great gray was left alone in the round pen saddled and bridled as were all of the other contestants horses at one point or another.  But Rachelle left one of her reins dangling and Checkers stepped on it, then danced in panic for a few moments.  Point deductions by the judges followed.

 Her barrel-chested gelding pushed past her and broke for freedom as she closed the round pen gate after riding him outside its limits for several minutes.  More penalty points.  After day one, Rachelle spent her time looking up at her fellow competitors, a place she never relinquished.

Rachelle Valentine and Checkers outside the round pen.**

After breaking free.**

Checkers pushing a ball while crossing a tarp.  Difficult work well done.**

After the obstacle course.  The use of pink and white on the course to emphasize femininity made a mockery of the contestants.**

On a horse Sarah Dawson is fluid and graceful, her every movement has a purpose and nothing is left to chance. She is a terrific horsewoman and I think often overlooked because of her quiet, almost shy demeanor.  She shares one characteristic with her father, Richard Winters, she is a phenomenal rider. I am not being crude when I say that her butt never leaves the saddle no matter the gait.  Not every competitor, male or female, can say the same.

She is newly married and with her husband Chris, they operate Dawson Performance Horses in Aubrey, Texas.  Their focus is on Reined Cow Horses and they currently have about sixty head in one state of training or another.  Her marriage and professional success have given her once flat delivery during demonstrations a boost.  There is a joy and happiness evident when she speaks now and she wears it well.

Sarah has two NRCHA (National Reined Cow Horse Assoc.) World Championships to her credit and was the 2015 Snaffle Bit Futurity Limited Open Champion and has been a finalist in every NRCHA premier event.  At this writing, Sarah is currently ranked eighth nationally, while her husband is ranked number two. Chris was in Las Vegas competing while she started her colt at the RTTH.  

Sarah Dawson on her colt. #4**

Despite her usual solid work, Sarah spent the weekend in third places with less than ten points separating her from the top spot and Kate Neubert.  Sometimes it just doesn't pay to be too good at what you do.

Kate Neubert grew up starting horses with her father, clinician Bryan Neubert, in California.  Her specialty is in cutting horses, where her winnings are approaching $200,000.  She qualified two horses to the semi-finals in the 2014 NCHA Futurity, her first year competing in this prestigious event.

She describes herself as Kate the horse trainer, the competitor and as a somewhat quiet girl from California, but also as a servant of God and student of the horse.  

As she enters her round-pen you are struck by how small she is, tiny by any measure, but tough and thorough, competent and aggressive.  In her brochure she is quoted as saying, "We can take young horses - horses that are frightened, stressed or confused, and in a short amount of time (and with the right efforts) we can teach them understanding, trust and encouragement.  We can mold them and shape them and create a willing partner, all because of our approach.  If we can apply these tactics to every corner of our lives, just think of the growth and impact we can have on ourselves and others!"
Her comments define the perfect strategy for any horse endeavor, but especially one such as the RTTH, where the time allowed with a young gelding is at a premium and the results can define the rest of the horse's life.

Kate Neubert and her young gelding.**

In first place at the end of day one, she began day two by striding confidently into her round-pen, insisting on forward movement from her 3-year-old charger.  I've noticed over the past several years that horses provided by the 6666 ranch tend toward a bit of indolence, perhaps a byproduct of fear caused by their separation from the herd.  But it is a contest that requires forward motion.

With a scant ten point margin over Kiwi Vicki Wilson in second place, Kate literally did a hop, skip and jump as she entered the arena and began to prepare her horse for the obstacle course on day three. The obstacle course, as you might expect, separates "the men from the boys" and the audience responds to each competitor with encouragement,. thunderous applause and ear-splitting cheers.  

Somewhere on day three it began to go wrong for Kate Neubert. I couldn't tell you where exactly, mostly it came down to her horse's capacity to learn and willingness to cooperate.  Many have said, "How did we ever train horses without blue tarpolins?" Sluggish at pole-bending, with uncertain and ragged passages over the next two obstacles, the dreaded tarpolin reared its cobra-like head and bit Kate Neubert.  But this time the tarp was white with Zoetis printed in bold bright orange letters across its surface and may as well have been ten feet tall, because Kate Neubert's horse would not cross.

Vicki Wilson, the last minute replacement for Barbara Cox, came to the arena wearing riding breaches, a helmet, tight calf-high riding boots and a flat saddle.  A champion show jumper in her native New Zealand, she speaks in a slightly nasal clipped accent that combines a bit of English haughtiness with a demand for your respect. No one could have looked or sounded more out of place than Vicki Wilson in the good ol' boys environment of western colt starting.  

Vicki Wilson and the horse she named Kentucky. **

Notice that there is tape over the name on Vicki's saddle cloth.  Not unusual, when my horse Stormy Monday and I appeared with Rick Lamb on The Horse Show, I had to remove my Chris Cox vest!  At that time ADM, the show's sponsor, also sponsored Clinton Anderson.

Vicki and her two sisters are well known for their work saving the wild horses of New Zealand and now have brought their passion to the United States and our native horse, the mustang.  And I think it is the word "passion" that best describes Vicki Wilson's relationship to her horses and life.

It was not her accent or her garb that riveted those in the arena, but her skill in coaxing everything that her horse Kentucky had to give at any given moment and rewarding his effort with rest.

No one really saw what happened, only that it appeared she had been thrown.  In fact, she had somehow dislocated her left shoulder, an old injury, and leaped to the ground landing on her bum. Scrambling  to her feet and doing a passable job of mending the joint, she continued as though nothing had happened.  Vicki is a tough and experienced competitor and as Chris Cox said of her, "If you shake hands with her you'd better hold on to something."  Earning Chris' respect is a trophy to cherish.

Returning the next morning, day two, with her arm in a sling, she said that she had spent an uncomfortable night, had seen a "physio" and was back to to do the job she came to do.  In that moment she won over the assembly, if not the judges.  She remained in second place behind Kate Neubert by a mere ten points as day three dawned.

For three days Vicki Wilson demonstrated knowledge, competence, courage and extraordinary skill, whether showcasing her diagnostic and chiropractic skills in a demonstration (she even had adjusted Stacey Westfall's horse once and had been asked to do another adjustment), or in a dream-like spotlit performance aboard one of Dan James' horses, she simply stood taller than her fellow competitors.

Vicki Wilson and Pegasus

Vicki Wilson and one of Dan James horses in a bridle-less exhibition.**

It was among the pink and white fixtures of the obstacle course that Vicki Wilson excelled and laid claim to the 2017 title.  Her vast experience and calm reassuring demeanor led her horse, Kentucky, to accomplish what a horse with little more than three hours of training should not have been able to do.

A timed event, Vicki and Kentucky finished the obstacle course with minutes to spare.  She eliminated his fears with gentle but firm guidance, giving him courage and confidence where fear had reigned just seconds before.  In the process she was creating the brave and trusting horse that all of us want to ride. Understanding his reluctance before an obstacle, Vicki several times dismounted and walked her horse around and through or over the obstacles that shook his resolve. In particular the white Zoetis tarp that I mentioned earlier, first walking Kentucky across, then remounting and riding him across.  In that moment the audience picked their winner.  It was left only to the fickle judges to confirm the victory.  I might add that while the audience had selected a winner, the judges seem to grudgingly accept the vaguely different methods used by foreign competitors, primarily Australians, before awarding them the brass ring.

With the smallest margin of victory in the competitions fifteen year history, a new champion was crowned: Vicki Wilson of New Zealand.  And deservedly so.  She'll be back in 2018 to defend her crown and she will do an exceptional job of it, be sure of that.  We can only hope that the 2018 version is not billed as a "battle of the sexes."  This is not the WWE (professional wrestling), it is the beginning of a new life for a horse that only days before will have roamed freely on the Texas plains.  

It is not about gender, it is the about the horse - always the horse, first and foremost, the horse.

Amid the pyrotechnics the winner is...  Notice her left arm in a sling,

Tootie Bland and Vicki Wilson.

Copyright, July 27, 2017 by Loren Schumacher
All photos marked ** are copyrighted by Loren Schumacher, July 27, 2017
All other photo copyrights are by the photographer, RTTH or by Western Horseman Magazine

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