Whether competing in a colt-starting contest such as Road to the Horse or working with your own horses, progress is achieved through feel, timing, demeanor and communication skills. Here, four respected horsemen discuss how they judge those elements of good horsemanship.

Recognizing good horsemanship takes a trained eye and years of experience working with horses. Not everyone can make an accurate assessment of a trainer’s abilities, and even fewer are qualified to award points and assign scores to how someone starts a colt under saddle.

Rules and a scoring system for judging horsemen at this early stage of training weren’t even in place 15 years ago. However, that changed when an innovative event named Road to the Horse began in 2003 and made starting colts a high-profile competition that now offers a $100,000 purse.

During three short sessions held over three riveting days, Road to the Horse judges watch contestants work with untrained 3-year-old geldings raised by the Four Sixes Ranch in Guthrie, Texas. The horses are caught, saddled, ridden, and in the last round guided through a sometimes unnerving obstacle course. Credit is given not only for what is accomplished by Day 3, but for the entire process and the horsemanship demonstrated by contestants.

During the event, judges pay close attention to the contestants’ timing, apparent feel for the task at hand, and their demeanor.

Popular clinicians Clinton Anderson, Craig Cameron and Chris Cox each have won Road to the Horse, and lesser-known horsemen such as Jim Anderson and Stacy Westfall also have claimed the championship. In March of 2019, former champions Nick Dowers and Vicki Wilson will compete in Lexington, Kentucky, and this year’s new twist—in addition to there being only two contestants rather than three—is that they will each be tasked with starting three colts in three days.

Richard Winters riding colt at Road to the Horse
Richard Winters takes his horse outside the roundpen for the first time at the 2016 event.

A panel of five experienced horsemen will judge the event. In September, Road to the Horse officials met with four prior event judges to refine the rules and enhance scoring sheets. It was an effort to ensure that sound horsemanship continues to be rewarded in the final outcome.

“That’s why we’re here,” event founder and producer Tootie Bland said during the meeting. “The horsemanship at Road to the Horse has taken leaps and bounds from where it started, and that is really important. In the past, I don’t think we have always been prepared enough from a judging standpoint. I think the credibility of Road to the Horse depends on this group here. So we are working to be more organized, build a unit of judges that works as a team, and improve this area of Road to the Horse. We want to bring it to a higher level.”

The horsemen who offered their insight included Bill Enk, Mike Kevil, Bryan Neubert and Jeff Williams. Enk, of Paso Robles, California, has trained horses for many years and also holds judging cards in a number of organizations. He also is the director of judges for the National Reined Cow Horse Association. Kevil, of Scottsdale, Arizona, has trained horses his entire life, specializing in starting young performance horses. Neubert, of Alturas, California, has started thousands of colts and conducts horsemanship clinics throughout the United States and Canada. Williams, of Post, Texas, specializes in starting colts for working ranches, and he regularly demonstrates those 2-year-olds at premier stock horse sales.

Even though these horsemen and judges do not advise most people to advance a young horse’s training dramatically in just a few days, Road to the Horse serves the public as an educational and entertaining display of horsemanship performed by professional colt starters.

Here, Enk, Kevil, Neubert and Williams answer questions about starting colts, recognizing sound horsemanship, and judging Road to the Horse. They also share valuable insights for anyone interested in a horse’s education.

All of you have mentioned the importance of doing “the little things.” Can you describe what that means?

NEUBERT: It’s hard to recognize some of that good stuff without having made a living at [working with horses]. Most people don’t see those little things. They see the overall picture instead of the little things that came together to make that overall picture. It’s like hanging onto the reins too much and keeping your horse from freeing up and moving forward. Your actions are so much more critical at these early stages.

KEVIL: Some of the “little things” are big. Horsemen do things that are very subtle, but they mean so much. Good timing is hard to judge, but the horse is really the one that judges. So when you’re watching, the horse’s reaction is a pretty good indicator of whether [the method] was right or not—if it was done with good or bad timing. That means that the trainer read the horse right and applied it correctly.

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A real good example was Pat Parelli in the final round [at Road to the Horse in 2011]. He was going to cross the tarp, but his horse froze and kind of backed off. Pat didn’t make a big deal of it. He just kept riding the horse, moving it back and forth [near the tarp], and kept setting it up to cross the tarp. But he never rushed it. So the timing of when he asked it to cross was very important. But it was hard to see because you could see him not asking more than you could see him asking. He waited until it was the right time, and all of a sudden the horse stepped across. And I feel like the time he took to cross that tarp set him up for [success at] the later obstacles, which were more difficult.

How would you define a person who is qualified to judge Road to the Horse?

NEUBERT: Somebody that’s worked with young horses for a lifetime. People that have had difficult horses, and have contemplated and experimented with different approaches, and have worked hard to get through different problems. They’ve found answers.

A lot of horse show trainers say, “If he doesn’t fit my deal in the first few days, he’s heading home.” But so many colt starters know that even if a horse isn’t very nice, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to get him started. You’ve got to get him ready for somebody to ride. You can’t just say, “He’s stupid. He’s crazy. He’s a bronc.” You’ve got to figure out how to deal with him.

WILLIAMS: A judge needs to have ridden young horses and accomplished something with them. The second thing is he needs to know how to read horses— to know how far [the contestant] could take that horse. There is a limit on every horse in that pen, and a judge needs to know that limit. And finally, he needs to be able to read people. Is [a contestant] here to win $100,000, or is he here for the well-being of the horse?

KEVIL: If you’ve trained horses all your life, but in a manner that’s not consistent with what we’re promoting, you’re not going to judge it correctly. We need people who are like-minded in their horsemanship. And it isn’t limited to any one discipline. Their background can be in any type of discipline, and any type of breed. Good horsemanship is good horsemanship, regardless of the breed, your gender or your discipline.

ENK: I think you have to be a horseman to recognize what these professional colt starters are trying to do. A good horseman will recognize that. But you also have to be able to put down on your score sheet what you just saw. It’s not just important that you saw it; your score has to reflect what just happened. And you have to do it correctly and consistently.

Is being open-minded an important trait for a judge?

KEVIL: Bryan [Neubert] just mentioned the other day that somebody was going to give a demonstration nearby. And his comment was, “Oh, good. I get a chance to learn something.” That’s openmindedness.
You are open to new ideas, new styles. You might know a method that has always worked. But there might be something that can make it work a little better. I don’t know any good horseman who is done learning.

NEUBERT: Someone [starting a colt] might do something totally different than I would, but I think, “I’ve got to see how this plays out. I wouldn’t do it quite like that.” But I’m judging how he does it, not what he does.

ENK: The challenge in judging this [event] is so great because there is a lot of new stuff to see. You can tell who is open-minded and willing to learn by looking at them. Their eyes, their posture don’t say, “I know more than you do.” Their expression says, “No kidding? I never thought of doing it that way.”

How is judging RTTH different from judging other horse events?

ENK: It’s not just strictly what they end up accomplishing. In a horse show, they either do [the required maneuver] or they don’t, and then you score how well they did it. Road to the Horse is a combination of result and preparation. Contestants start from scratch with a horse that hasn’t been messed with. So the challenge is how well do you [prepare to] get to the finals, and then how well do you handle these few challenges, the obstacles, in the final round.

KEVIL: Because this is both a contest and demonstration of horsemanship, you’re trying to win without sacrificing that horse, which means you use good horsemanship. And I think that’s why we’re refining the rules, so we get that balance. It’s not just a contest. And it’s not just horsemanship. If the rules are set right, then we retain good horsemanship.

See the full article in the December 2018 issue of Western Horseman.

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