Training

Subtle Steps

Two Road to the Horse judges highlight moments of impressive horsemanship they witnessed at the world championship of colt starting.

Two Road to the Horse judges highlight moments of impressive horsemanship they witnessed at the world championship of colt starting.

Good horsemanship is often easy to spot, as a gentle, patient approach to working with a horse results in a trusting and willing attitude. At the same time, some of the most impressive methods a good horseman employs are subtle and likely to go unnoticed.

Both the obvious and the understated were on display at the 15th annual Road to the Horse, the world championship of colt starting held March 23–25 in Lexington, Kentucky. This year’s event required each competitor to start two untrained 3-year-old geldings, working both during four rounds. During the first two days, each horseman was assigned a roundpen and given three hours to work with the two horses he or she had selected from a group provided by the Four Sixes Ranch of Guthrie, Texas. On the last day, contestants worked their two horses individually. With each horse, they were given 20 minutes in a roundpen for Round 3, and in Round 4 they rode for 35 minutes in a large arena, executing basic maneuvers on the rail and negotiating 11 trail obstacles.

Judges highlight moments of impressive horsemanship from Dan James, Nick Dowers and Vicki Wilson at the world championship of colt starting.
Eventual champion Vicki Wilson builds trust with her roan Four Sixes Ranch gelding. Photo by Ross Hecox

The three competitors were all former RTTH champions: Dan James (2012), Nick Dowers (2016) and Vicki Wilson (2017). At the conclusion of Round 4, Wilson—of New Zealand— was announced the winner and awarded $100,000.

A panel of five judges determined the winner on a points-based system, giving credit through all four rounds for factors such as sound horsemanship methods, building trust, degree of difficulty, problem solving, demeanor, executing maneuvers in the final round and advancement through the trail course.

Two of the judges, former rough stock rider and horseman Cody Lambert and longtime colt starter Jeff Williams, agree that all three competitors demonstrated impressive horsemanship, both subtle and noticeable.

“What was cool to me was they started two horses apiece, and all three of them had different plans going in,” Lambert says. “Vicki got her horse gentle from his head to his tail, and all through his feet, while letting him stand next to the other horse while it was in the holding pen. She used that other horse as a comfort for the horse she was working with.

“Nick worked both horses in the roundpen together. He was using one’s motion to get forward motion with the other.

“Dan worked one horse at a time. There were three different methods and three different plans, and they all worked well.”

Judges highlight moments of impressive horsemanship from Dan James, Nick Dowers and Vicki Wilson at the world championship of colt starting.
Dan James introduces one of his geldings to obstacles in the round pen. Photo by Ross Hecox

Williams says he was impressed with James’ discipline in working both sides of his horses.

“Dan was very thorough, and his horses were very confident and balanced,” Williams says.

He adds that James earned credit for a minor adjustment with his sorrel horse.

“That colt was real cinchy and didn’t want to move out,” Williams says. “Dan loosened his cinch one hole, and as soon as he did that, the horse freed up. It works to loosen that cinch up, get him moving, and then tighten it up again. I saw that and thought ‘Man, how sharp was that.'”

Both Williams and Lambert agreed that the brown horse Dowers selected was a big challenge. The horse was difficult to catch, quick to spook, and athletic enough to buck off some of the most talented riders.

“He needed to [desensitize] him from above [before riding him],” Williams says. “So [during Round 2] he used his other horse, one he had ridden only about 20 minutes. He snubbed up that brown horse to his sorrel, and that took total trust [in Dowers] from the sorrel horse.”

By the fourth round, Dowers had ridden the brown horse no more than 10 minutes. Going at the horse’s pace, he was able to complete his rail work but ran out of time to finish the obstacle course.

Judges highlight moments of impressive horsemanship from Dan James, Nick Dowers and Vicki Wilson at the world championship of colt starting.
Nick Dowers works both of his horses simultaneously, riding his sorrel horse while getting the more sensitive brown gelding accustomed to the saddle and an object following behind. Photo by Ross Hecox

“Even though he was in a competition that pays $100,000 to the winner, he didn’t compromise his principles,” Lambert says. “He didn’t let the clock get to him, because the clock doesn’t mean anything to a horse. It’s impressive that a guy sticks with his process and gives the horse the time it needs.”

Wilson impressed the judges with her ability to connect with her two horses.

“She had some way of getting these horses to trust her,” Williams says. “She wasn’t worried about lateral flexion, about hind-end control. She worked on building two things: trust and forward motion. Therefore, during the first two days she gained so many points because she built so much trust in those horses. And it’s unbelievable how much forward motion she got. And then, even though she didn’t work much on lateral flexion or moving the hindquarters, she had that by the last day.”

Lambert, who has judged RTTH eight times, says that even though the event is a competition, its educational value rates as high as its entertainment value.

“I’ve learned a great deal eery year from the clinicians and the other judges,” he says. “I think it lets people know that you can do a lot with a horse without having to get into a fight with him. And it shows that there are lots of different methods to use with a horse. It’s a great event.”

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Western Horseman.

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