SEFHA Colt Starter Challenge: Part I

Yesterday natural horsemanship trainers James Cooler, Randy Abernathy, and Pam Tanner competed in the first annual SEFHA Colt Starter Challenge. It took place in the indoor riding arena at Chatham Hall, a girls’ boarding school in Virginia. Several hundred people showed up to watch the all-day event, in which the trainers spent three one-hour sessions putting green colts through high-speed basic training, culminating in an obstacle course. Tom Seay, host of America on Horseback, served as announcer, and Ken McNabb of the RFD-TV show Discovering the Horseman Within was lead judge.

Host Tom Seay (left) and lead judge Ken McNabb

And that, dear readers, marks the end of my objective rendition of the challenge. From here on out, it’s all bias and opinion. Just sayin’.

Each trainer picked a number out of a bag to find out which colt she or he would work with. The colts, all sired by the same thoroughbred, looked scrubby and undernourished—except for Valentino, the black Arabian-thoroughbred cross in round pen two.

James got last pick and ended up in round pen one with William, a bay Anglo-Arab who started out lovey-dovey then turned into a firecracker once James strapped on the bareback pad. “Maybe our honeymoon period is a little bit over,” James commented wryly.

James and William during their honeymoon period

Yup, the honeymoon was definitely over, and the newlyweds had some major issues to work out. William turned out to have a mile-wide skittish streak and a god-given talent for leaping, twisting bucks.

Host Tom Seay, who never met a silence he couldn’t fill, joked about the ruckus in round pen one: “James is in a cloud of dust. His round pen may sell for cheaper after the show because it’s been kicked.”

William encounters his first bareback pad: not love at first cinch

The other two trainers had pussycats by comparison; neither horse had an inclination for bucking. Valentino, the looker of the three colts, was a sensitive, compliant fellow.

Pam Tanner bonds with Valentino

Randy’s colt, whose name I never learned—I’ll call him Tom because his diminutive frame put me in mind of Tom Thumb—was anxious and high-strung at first but settled down as Randy steadily put him through his paces.

The one-hour sessions flew past, progressing from building trust to directing the colts’ movements through body language to tacking up. In the third session, Pam and Randy climbed into the saddle. The crowd held its collective breath when Randy, a substantial man, swung aboard skinny-ribbed Tom. Randy had the wisdom and humor to point out the obvious: “Let’s face it—I’m a fat man and this is a little horse. We’re going to take it slow and easy.”

Big man, little colt

Meanwhile James, who’d put his full weight on William’s back in the first round, chose to focus on ground work during the third session. He explained to the crowd that he was concerned about safety—his own and the colt’s—given William’s extreme fear-based reactions. He didn’t want to tax the colt’s already strained mental and emotional resources, so he made the decision not to ride him in the competition. Instead he focused on helping William push past his fears and grow his confidence.

“He has a panic button. I’m trying to get him to see that he doesn’t have to go there,” James told the audience. He pointed out a dark sweat patch on William: “Sweat patches on a horse means there’s something that isn’t clicking. He’s holding a lot of stress inside.”

He kept the colt moving briskly around the pen to help occupy his adrenaline-charged mind and release his energy. Then James dragged a blue plastic tarp into the round pen. William freaked out at first, going straight into right-brain panic mode. Then slowly, hesitatingly, he gained the courage to sniff and paw this slippery blue apparition. Suddenly he looked like a curious horse, not just a reactive one: his internal shift had begun. The audience—which included a substantial block of unabashed Cooler Horsemanship supporters wearing “Team Cooler” buttons—broke out into applause. Everyone seemed to be rooting for the plucky little horse who was facing down his fears with James’ help.

William takes his first sniff of the blue tarp

Check back soon for Part II to find out how the colts fared in the obstacle course and which trainer won the challenge. Many thanks to photographer extraordinaire Margaret Bednar, who supplied images for this blog post.

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