Californian wins Road to the Horse

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Californian was declared the winner of the 2009 Road to the Horse competition in Franklin last weekend. A sell-out crowd of 6,000 horse enthusiasts from all over the country packed the Williamson County Ag Expo Park to watch three horsemen each take a 3-year-old gelding from unbroken to competition-ready in just two 90-minute sessions.

Richard Winters, from Ojai, Calif., was declared the winner by the panel of five judges after all three men successfully completed the final obstacle course on Sunday afternoon.

His competitors, John Lyons and Tommy Garland, also did an outstanding job with their colts, chosen from a group of 10 American Quarter Horses supplied by the historic Bath Brothers Ranch of Laramie, Wyo.

Just watching three men spend three hours working with three colts doesn't make a weekend's entertainment, so owner/producer Tootie Bailey-Bland built plenty of extras into the program.

The All-American Cowgirl Chicks, an equestrian drill team, performed both days and thrilled the crowd with fast riding and daring tricks. The Cowgirl Chicks ride for a reason bigger than themselves: they wear red, white and blue in support of our American troops, and they dedicate their time and money to help support cancer patients and their families. All their horses are rescue or adoption animals that the girls themselves have rehabilitated and trained to be top performance horses.

Horse people have a seemingly boundless desire to shop for items related to their passion, and vendors filled the concourse behind the seats of the Ag Expo arena. Everything from furniture, paintings, and sculptures, to apparel, tack, feed, and supplements was on offer, and, in spite of the bad economy, people were buying. Judging from the license plates in the parking lots, there's no limit to how far people were willing to travel to this event: they had come from as far away as Massachusetts, Vermont, Nebraska, and Texas, as well as from all over the Midwest and the South.

The three competitors are all "clinicians" as well, who teach horses and riders professionally. All can be seen on TV and in the pages of horse magazines, and each brought one of his own horses to Franklin and used it during a half-hour clinic on Saturday. All three also rode and spoke to the crowd as part of the entertainment Sunday morning. The educational aspect of the weekend continued through the final phase of the competition: each man wore a microphone and explained to the audience what they were doing as they coaxed their colts through the obstacle course.

Rick Lamb, the host, kept the crowd engaged with his intelligent comments while the colts were worked in the round pens, and did mini-interviews when the competitors stepped out of the pens for a break.

Winters, the eventual winner, got on his colt bareback the first day, and was the first to have a saddle on the second day. "No news is good news," he said to Lamb, as he proceeded to slowly and patiently work his horse in the round pen. Winters is the first winner to complete the RTTH obstacle course with the horse wearing just a halter and reins made from the lead rope, instead of a bit and bridle. In the freestyle portion of the finale, he asked for a cow to be let into the arena, and had his colt confidently following it at the lope - another first. Remember that this is a young horse that was barely halter-broken the day before!

Garland had chosen a more difficult horse that did some bucking, and when Lamb asked if he had given it a name, he said, "It sure ain't Precious!" Nevertheless, he completed the obstacle course in fine style with 11 minutes to spare, commenting, "This is the hardest I've worked in a long time."

Lyons, "America's Most Trusted Horseman," took up all 35 of his allotted minutes, putting on a great show with a horse that had not been that easy to direct. "You're the master, John," shouted someone in the crowd as they gave Lyons a standing ovation.

Winters, however, was outstanding in everything he did. He takes home a special prize buckle, and a trophy saddle, dedicated to Bailey-Bland's late husband Steven, who founded RTTH with her in 2003. Fort Dodge Animal Health is giving $15,000 to Winters' favorite charity, Focus on the Family, which has been dedicated to serving, strengthening and defending families worldwide for over 30 years.