Horsemanship showcased

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Middle Tennesseans at a unique annual competition between cowboys training colts saw superb horsemanship during the event dubbed "Road to the Horse."

And there were three days of instruction, entertainment by a Mexican-styled roper and a trade fair with equestrian products at the Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro.

A Texan won the Road to the Horse competition. He's Chris Cox, of Mineral Wells, Texas, who on Sunday afternoon was declared the winner of the colt-starting competition.

"That Chris Cox was a class act," exclaimed Lewisburg resident Nancy McCullough. She was attending her first RTTH to cheer on her favorite clinician, Pat Parelli.

This was Cox's third trip to the winner's circle at RTTH. Cox won in 2007 and 2008. This year the competition was especially tough because he was up against two-time past winner Clinton Anderson and world-renowned horseman Parelli.

RTTH producer Tootie Bland called them "the three biggest clinicians of our time."

All three men are on RFD TV and they promote their own version of natural horsemanship across the country and around the world. Beyond their personal appearances, the men sell horse-related products and educational materials.

In Murfreesboro, however, none of that mattered. Each man was alone in a round pen with an untouched three-year-old gelding, and had a total of just four hours, spread over two days, to prepare the horse to complete an obstacle course Sunday afternoon.

There was a sell-out crowd. Six judges scored the trainers' every move while timekeepers made sure each horse got its required 20-minute-rest period. Camera operators captured everything for a live, pay-per-view Web cast. A four-disc set of DVDs will be released in early June. Commentator Rick Lamb, one of the horse industry's most knowledgeable and effective communicators, narrated the competition.

The horses were supplied by the legendary 6666 Ranch, one of the most well respected Quarter Horse breeding programs in the United States. Competitors selected a horse to train from a herd of 10 geldings on Saturday. The Four Sixes planned to keep those horses, and others, for the cowboys who work with the ranch's 7,000-strong herd of black Angus cattle.

Parelli might have wondered if he made the right choice when the colt he selected bucked him off Saturday afternoon.

Cox's horse didn't want to leave its buddies outside the arena on Sunday, and jumped from the arena before a second try, with more horses around, got it into the round pen. Anderson didn't even get on his colt for the first time until 20 minutes before the end of the training time, but made rapid progress after that.

The final phase of competition lasted 35 minutes, starting from the moment the horse was brought into the saddling pen. Each man had to saddle his horse, ride both ways of the rail at a walk, jog and lope, back up, mount and dismount, and lift all four feet. Then the obstacle course tested the horse's willingness to confront new experiences -- stepping over and jumping poles, dragging a log, walking on a tarp, and so on. Whatever time remained was the competitor's own to show off freestyle. Anderson, who lost points because his horse never would walk on the tarp, ended with a bridleless gallop around the arena, cracking his Australian stock whip. Parelli's horse, which he ended up buying for his own string, was ridden without a bit, in a rope hackamore, and looked the calmest and most willing through the obstacles. He ended up bouncing the Parelli trademark "Big Green Ball" higher than the horse's head as it stood rock still.

Cox ended by standing on his horse's saddle, a RTTH trademark move since Anderson did it at the first RTTH in 2003. Then there was an agonizing wait as the judges tallied their scores and Cox emerged the winner of a trophy saddle, a check for $10,000, a gold and silver belt buckle, and silver spurs. The most special prize, however, was a painting by official RTTH artist Susan Edison. The picture features Bland and her late husband, Steven Bland, "one of the great cowboys" as Cox called him, along with portraits of this year's competitors.