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Reporting from Road to the Horse--Day One

Road to the Horse is a very unique and surprising event. Fireworks, rock music, glitter, and glam are not what you might usually associate with natural horsemanship-inspired colt starting. Looking around the bleachers, I see a 58-year old bleach blonde in bedazzled tight jeans opening wide her silicone-injected lips to yell support for her favorite next to a wizened old man in a ten-gallon hat, taking notes in his notebook of the contestants’ scores after a long day of competition. Further above me sit two twin toddlers in a stroller, sucking on milk bottles while their Nanna enjoys the show with her twin sister. All around me are couples from North Carolina, California, Ohio, and Texas--all ages, all sizes, all shapes, all styles come here. For what? To see great horsemanship on display in a very particular, strange, yet eerily seductive setup. Once a year, the Road to the Horse comes to Lexington, Kentucky, at the Alltech Arena, and the very divergent worlds of natural horsemanship and Hollywood-style productions collide in an expensive extravaganza of sound, drama, and high stakes…

I almost regretted coming this year as: 1) the expense was big, 2) I had to come alone and arrive after midnight and drive 1.5 hours to my hotel, 3) the fourth competitor, Canadian master horseman Jim Anderson, had to pull out of the competition at the last minute and I really wanted to see him in action, and 4) it required leaving my house and herd in the capable hands of my already busy teenage daughter, and my daughter in the care of my best friend, while hubby traveled in the Southern Cone. That said, three hours of watching Vicki Wilson, Dan James, and Nick Dowers start 6 colts, and I am bewitched and enthralled!

The event began, as usual, with lots of noise and drama, this time in the form of a Mardi Gras parade.

The highlight was the fun, skillful band from New Orleans, and the wagon pulled by 6 minis!!! (Okay, the 6 Percherons weren’t too bad, either!). The contestants appeared on stage from inside a birthday cake to

celebrate the event’s 15th birthday and the games began. One big setback was that, of the 30 or so horses in the 6666 Remuda, only 7 were deemed healthy enough to participate in the competition! The others had an upper-respiratory tract infection from their arduous trip up here and the dramatic changes in temperature.

So, the 3 contestants had to re-do their internal wish lists and ended up with horses that were nowhere near the top of their lists yesterday. Lots were drawn, horses chosen, and each contestant chose 2 horses to work with, and work they did for the next 3 hours. (Last year, each contestant worked one horse—so I was curious to see how this new setup would be. It was fantastic!)

Vicki Wilson: As talented, strong, intuitive, competitive, and natural as ever, Vicki came out speaking horse from her very first step. She is so methodical, and, to the untrained eye, might even seem too physical, too fast, yet there is nothing that she does that is not perfectly timed and tuned in to the horse in front of her. She does not produce huge fireworks, because she gets the horse so intrigued by her, so comfortable with her energy, that they seem to meld with her, not in a smooth, subdued way, but in a way that feels very raw and natural, and satisfying. She even took the time to adjust her horses, manipulating their legs and joints, and the relief they felt and the trust that grew from that experience with her was palpable. She came out in third place today, and her disappointment (and the crowd’s) was evident, but she has a lot of the crowd behind her, and I know, will astound again tomorrow. One of her horses, the sorrel, was my first choice pick--#12. He was also the easiest for her to ride, but I have a feeling she will favor the more dominant, athletic roan.

Dan James: He has always been hard for me to capture as a person, as a horseman—I like him, admire him, follow his work, but haven’t been able to quite figure him out. He is reason number two for my coming (Vicki being number one). Today he showed us why he is so good with his liberty horses and horses under saddle—he moves very much in time with a horse’s emotions and feet, becoming firm and fast when needed, and stepping away when the horse has earned and/or needs a respite. I loved how he took a lot of time to touch the horse all over its body and, when on the lunge line, to teach the horse to seek that feel through the rope. All his methodical steps led him to ride both horses well, even though the palomino one was quite shut down at first. It was fantastic to see him adjust his methods to each horse. I didn’t like the palomino at all as a choice, but, have a feeling that Dan will work with him and transform him into something of beauty!

Nick Dowers: I remember being impressed with him and his resume, and knew that he would present a huge challenge to Dan and Vicki; now I am beyond impressed, having had front-row seats to his artistry today. All three contestants had a fascinating focused energy when working their colts—you could feel it up to the rafters!!! We were all as intrigued as the colts, and the MCs, Craig Cameron and his partner kept trying to get us to cheer and clap, but we were as focused as the horses on the three contestants! Their energy was MAGNETIC, and, Nick? His was the most grounded, leading to the most fluid work and step by step formation of a solid foundation with his colts; truly, his work was like silk. He has gained a new admirer in his two colts (well, the dark one has yet to be fully won over), and in me. His chestnut colt was my second favorite colt in the reduced Remuda (#6), but after watching him chew on that bit for about 2 hours, poke at the balls, roll about five times when at rest, stare longingly at Nick when Nick worked the other colt, open the gate, and be so curious and engaged, I am in LOVE. And, the way Nick rode him, with smooth as silk rollbacks (in a halter), and such natural collection---WOW.

Folks, this is exciting stuff…Stay tuned for more as the competition continues over the next two days. Lucky me to witness it!

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