The Road to the Road

I made a road trip last week to Lexington, Kentucky, with a different kind of road as my destination: Road to the Horse 2013.

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This was no ordinary spectator experience. I got a backstage view and a front-row seat, thanks to Wild Card competitor James Cooler and his wife, Kate. I came as their self-appointed communications director, student, friend, and true believer.

James’ mom came too, all the way from Lewistown, Montana. There were dinnertime reminiscences about James’ late dad, who got him started on the road to the Road. There were hopes-and-dreams talks about Cooler Horsemanship, which strikes me as the equine equivalent of The Little Engine That Could.

I got to spend three days steeped in horses, natural horsemanship, a crowd of 8,000 horse lovers, horse demonstrations, and horse-gear vendors. The only quiet spot was the building where the horses were stabled, including James’ horse, Sebastian. It was fun to see the headliners’ horses (plus Obbie Schlom’s zebra) calmly munching on hay, looking nothing like the rearing, leaping, galloping stars they transformed into in the arena.

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For us Cooler Horsemanship fans, Friday was a nail-biting day: James and the other Wild Card competitors drew from a playing deck to determine pick order for their colts. James pulled an ace, which gave him top choice. He picked Career Cat, a muscular bay with a long white streak on his head. James soon renamed him “Deuce,” in honor of his father’s penchant for declaring deuces wild in poker.

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The four Road to the Horse competitors—Dan James, Guy McLean, Obbie Schlom, and Sarah Winters—performed amazing demos. I took a gazillion photos; my favorite shows Dan James leaping into the air above his horses. For me, it captures the zeitgeist of Road to the Horse: wild risk, soaring dreams, extreme talent.

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Watching the competitors start their colts was like trying to track a four-ring circus. You knew something big had just happened when the crowd clapped or went “Oooooh!” Dan James and his broncy horse, aptly named Bucky, got a lot of oooohs.

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The obstacle course was the final challenge on Sunday. Guy’s horse, Mate, rode pluckily through the course and mounted the “mystery obstacle,” a wooden platform. Guy couldn’t resist standing on his horse on the platform and cracking a couple of stock whips (seems to be an Aussie thing). They looked like winners—and they were.

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After the show we meandered down to the arena. James mingled and shook hands with some of the greats of the natural horsemanship world. I felt proud just to be in the vicinity.

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James squeezed in his first session with Deuce in the corrals adjoining the arena. He approached Deuce with the utmost respect, never hurrying him. “If I’m doing this right, it should look like paint drying,” said James of the careful, delicate session.

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After watching Deuce and James for a while, I hit the road for home—exhausted, exhilarated, and excited about the next 12 months. On Friday, March 14, 2014, James and Deuce will be back in that big arena, competing with the other Wild Cards for a spot in the 2014 Road to the Horse.

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What a road to travel.

For more pictures and information about Road to the Horse, visit the RttH website and Facebook page.

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