SEFHA Colt Starter Challenge: Part II

In my previous post, I described the first three rounds of the SEFHA Colt Starter Challenge, in which trainers James Cooler, Randy Abernathy, and Pam Tanner worked with three green colts. The final challenge required the trainers to take their colts through an obstacle course. A panel of four judges scored the trainers on their working knowledge of natural horsemanship. According to host Tom Seay, whether the trainers rode their horses was secondary. He told the crowd, “If you all came here to see who gets on their horse first, don’t bother. It’s all about communication.”

Host Tom Seay introduces the trainers, ferried into the arena in a shiny red truck

Pam Tanner was the first trainer to take on the obstacle course; her horse, Valentino, unsettled at being in the arena without other horses, took a while to calm down. Pam opted not to ride him; instead she did some fundamentals on the ground and started walking him through the obstacle course.  He balked at the first jump, and then time ran out. Much of the twenty minutes allotted for the obstacle course had gone toward calming her horse.

Next came Randy Abernathy, whose horse Tom was equally jumpy. Randy worked patiently with Tom in the round pen, getting him settled enough to ride. Randy rode forward, backward, executed a required turn, and made it through the first obstacle, a zigzag configuration of poles. Like the previous horse, Tom stopped at the jump and refused to step over.  Again, time ran out.

James Cooler was the final contestant. He’d already stated that he wouldn’t ride because he didn’t want to push his horse into fear and away from the confidence he’d gained in the first three rounds. Like the other horses, William was edgy at being alone in the round pen. He surrendered his anxiety quickly, however, seeming to remember James’ leadership. James took him out of the round pen, picked up each of his hooves, and executed all the required basic moves except mounting and dismounting. He then “sent” William through the obstacle course, walking beside him rather than leading him. Little William—“Prince William” as James affectionately called him—hesitated briefly at the outset, then took each obstacle with aplomb.

William walks over the jump

His confidence visibly increased with each new challenge; he stepped through a pile of plastic noodles and crossed a wooden platform with a lilt in his step. “I’m doing it!” he seemed to be thinking. “Yay for me!”

Sniffing and navigating the noodles

James and William completed the obstacle course with a second to spare. When they finished, the arena erupted with cheers and clapping. William and his newfound confidence were clear crowd favorites.

Those of us on Team Cooler (as I stated in my previous post, this is a biased account) held hands and gripped thighs while waiting to hear who won. It had to be James: he’d taken a panicky little colt and taught him to begin working through his fears. William had learned to trust, to team up with a human, and to tap into his inner strength. The other trainers had done a fine job, but their agenda seemed to be preparing their horses for riding. There had been no equine cognitive-behavioral restructuring going on in those two pens.

Randy (left), James, and Pam wait for the judges to announce the winner; the first-prize saddle is behind them

And then the winner was announced: Randy Abernathy. The arena was quieter than you might expect for a victory announcement. Given my bias, I can’t be sure—but it seemed many in the audience were shocked.

At the beginning of the challenge, host Tom Seay talked about a 2,000-mile ride he and a group of horsemen took from Mexico to Canada. “The question in everybody’s mind was: Who is going to cross the finish line first?” Seay related. “Then a Native American who took part in the ride said, ‘Line the horses up and we’ll all cross together.'”

Seay told the story to emphasize that all the trainers were winners—and he was right. More important, the colts came out winners. They learned from three gifted trainers and got a solid, if somewhat rushed, foundation.

But still. Only one person took home the handmade saddle and the 500-pound bag of grain.

James was philosophical about the outcome but slightly subdued afterward. As for all the Cooler Horsemanship students who came out to support him at the challenge, a bunch of us spontaneously showed up at Fiore Farms the next day and took our horses out of the pastures. There we were: Rebecca and Jeannie, Dream and Joanie, Sonder and Elizabeth, Ben and Jane, Oberon and Margaret, Mystic and me. We played with our horses, using the knowledge James and Kate taught us. The arena was alive with horses and students, with joy and partnership.

I don’t know if James saw us from the window of his house, but I hope he did. I hope he saw and understood the reach of his gifts.

Cooler Horsemanship students Jane, Jeannie, and Joanie with their horses the day after the colt-starting challenge

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5 thoughts on “SEFHA Colt Starter Challenge: Part II

  1. I so wished I could be there to learn more about natural horsemanship and to support James. Your wonderful account is the next best thing. Thanks so much for this sensitive and informative report on the SEFHA Colt Challenge. ALMOST as good as being there!

  2. This brought ALL the emotions back! The elation, excitement, pride, anticipation… and the puzzlement that James didn’t “win”. Of course, in our hearts he did, but still…

    I don’t like sore losers, but my girls and I are still trying to sort this one out. Prince William was a much more confident and trusting horse and completed the entire challenge with grace. The other horses were nervous and just hadn’t come as far with their respective trainers. Period.

    It is MY biased (and somewhat knowledgeable) opinion of “Natural Horsemanship” that something happened in this competition that wasn’t quite right. I don’t know if it is that all the judges didn’t have a working knowledge of NH or what… I would have LOVED to know how each round ended up being judged and maybe that would shed some light on the final result for me.

    Excellent two posts, Mary.

    • I wish Pat Parelli had been a judge: I think the outcome would have been different. As I understand it, both Pam and Randy were surprised at the judges’ decision, and Randy expressed the sentiment that James deserved it. I guess there’s no right or wrong when it comes to subjective.

      I do think there’s a difficult paradox in natural horsemanship colt-starting challenges. It’s like telling an expectant mother, “You have to have your baby in three hours, but you can only use natural childbirth.”

      Thanks for letting me use your gorgeous photos. My favorite is the one of James letting Prince William sniff the blue tarp. Love the light in that one, and the line reaching between the two of them like an umbilical cord.

  3. Thanks Mary as always for your support and Maragret for your amazing photos! We are so lucky and thankful to be surrounded by such amazing and dedicated “students of the horse”. I learn form you all everyday how to be a better person and horseman. I just watched the video as we were downloading it last night and only feel just as proud of James and William as I did that day…maybe even more:)

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