Reporting from Day Two of Road to the Horse 2018
Hello friends. What a day. Now, this is only my second time here, but it couldn’t be more different than last year when it comes to the competitors. Last year, Vicki Wilson was poised to be challenged by at least 2 of the other 3 competitors based on their resumes, promotional videos, lineage, and hype. In the end, none of it helped them, and Vicki vanquished them all with her own brand of guts, simplicity, crowd-educating, and horse-lovingness.
This year, however, is a whole different story. The elimination of one competitor before the competition began made things even more complicated, as the competitors now had to divide up their own attention and energy amongst two, count them, TWO untouched 3-year old colts, and spend double the time every day that they had planned on. We can discuss the pros and cons of such a setup at any time, but I am truly too tired to do so right now. Plus, I have never been an equine competition judge, nor do I hope to be at any time. Now, a commentator? YES!!! I am proud to say, that Craig Cameron took the words off my notebook page several times today, confirming that I do have an understanding of what’s going on, and maybe, just maybe, if I become as famous as he, I could be tapped to commentate this competition one day. (Hey, I can dream)
At the end of round two, Vicki Wilson is in first place, Nick Dowers in second, and Dan James in third (by only a two-point difference). I will not bore you with why or how, as I do not know. I am impressed by all of them…
Alright, back to what I saw and experienced, so that those of you who couldn’t be there, can at least see it through my eyes. Here goes:
Ambience: We were expecting a pretty full house today, but snow, sleet, and icy rain slammed the area and many people simply did not come. The morning was not too bad, but as the day progressed, a few inches of slushy snow had accumulated. The Kentucky Horse Park staff kept parking lots and streets clear, however, so it’s too bad that less people than expected showed up. The better for those of us there, as we could put our bags in empty seats next to us!! I got to meet some fellow Pink Whippers, and we hope to have a full gang tomorrow to welcome Warwick!
Beautiful explanation of how he thinks, how he approaches all his horses, be they colts or more seasoned ones: He lets them know that he is listening to them when they express fear or nervousness or interest in something; he does not push them in a fearful/nervous moment, and they tend to soften because they are heard. He then finds the right moment to begin to ask them for something. As he feels their “baseline” (I understood it baseling as their emotional/physical capacity, which can change from moment to moment sometimes) come up, he asks for more. He is kind, but not a pushover—he knows not to ask too much of a horse that is already saying he is not ready or focused on the task at hand, or his body is braced. Once a horse is working well, he can ask for more and always likes to challenge his horse to be the best the horse can be; this builds even more confidence in the horse and he begins to enjoy his work. And, because Nick knows when to stop (he calls it knowing when to turn on, then turn off), the horse does not get burned out or tuned out. He showed his horse working a cow in absolute relaxation, then in full speed, and bam! Back to zero! So impressive. He is a humble, competent, magnificent cowboy.
Known as a showman, he did not disappoint. First he explained how he builds a relationship with each and every one of his horses at liberty, so that, even if they are all together, he can tune in to each and every one separately.
He brought out his Australian horse Emilia and demonstrated the importance of teaching a horse to get to the “mark”, so that, in filming, a horse can be filmed galloping and stopping, without Dan being in the frame!
Dan Steers also came out to help, and, of course, lots of comedy and clowning ensued, engaging all of us and giving us some much-needed comic relief after such intense competition.
Dan then worked all 6 (7?) of his horses at liberty, in amazing combinations! At one point he had three circling left on the furthermost circle, two circling right inside of those three, and swampy in the middle circling left around him. WOW!!! He then, lined them all up and Roman rode two of them while all cantered the length and breadth of the arena. Dan, you are the man!
She did a very simple strip tease. Yes, you heard me. A strip-tease. Oh, wait, did I say that? I meant tack-tease! As she cantered a white horse fast around the arena, each half arena she took off a piece of tack, without breaking stride or her smile. First, we saw one stirrup go, then another; next was the girth! Yes! She rode on a saddle and saddle blanket girthless. Next was the blanket, next the saddle, and last the bridle. What a gal!!! We were laughing and clapping and all looking at each other with glee.
ROUND TWO of the COMPETITION
He was in front of me today, so I will start with him. He started out as an elegant dancer, filled with grace in all his movements, his timing impeccable, his touch and release masterful on the groundwork and even under saddle. He rewarded any softness from his horse, and each horse softened more and more as he worked them. The white horse that seemed a hard wall to crumble yesterday became easy, quiet and the first colt of the competition to be ridden outside the round pen! Dan used a loping hackamore and a one-rein stop to his advantage to be able to get the horse out of the pen and into the arena. I think that was a key moment for that horse to begin to see what was in it for him. He actually began to enjoy himself. Dan, too.
Dan was, again, rubbing his horses a lot whenever they “got” something or softened. He also, like with his seasoned horses, never stopped asking the horse the question until the horse gave the answer. He didn’t up his energy, or make it more stressful—he just kept asking until the horse said “Ok”—no drama, no stress. He then began to bring out all manner of obstacles, tarp-curtained doorways, a cowbell hanging from a hangman’s perch, cavaletti separated by a shiny tarp, and a wooden bridge/plank to be crossed.
Like Warwick Schiller says: Create the tool before you need the tool or Make Sure your horse knows the answer before you ask the question---Dan did this to a tee, and his horses really did quite well with the obstacles.
Under saddle, I noticed that, if the horse was about to lose forward, Dan was ready with a one-rein hindquarter yield/rollback to get him moving in the opposite direction; in other words, stopping became hard and moving easy. At one point, he had his sorrel horse walking outside the pen, in the arena, so relaxed that it looked like a seasoned horse.
I also liked that, when Dan left the pen, his horses seemed to stare at him longingly. Overall, he was extremely meticulous and consistent in his body language, cueing, and asks. I don’t think his horses have any confusion, just exhaustion. And, I wonder if Dan’s own exhaustion is what cost him points?
His legs were cramping at one point, and he took his microphone off. It just looked like he was working too hard at the end of his sessions, when he could have simply enjoyed all that he had achieved today and spent some nice down time with the horses to soak it all in. He looked a bit more hardened and intense—so even though he kept his actions under control, at the end, emotionally he didn’t seem to be really investing any joy or affection into the relationship with his colts—he was spent!
I was so absorbed by Dan, I didn’t get as many notes on Nick, but here’s what I did get: Again, amazing feel for a horse’s emotional and physical needs. Yesterday, the sorrel horse was looking like a little kitty cat ready to go out on the ranch and do a cattle roundup with a contented purr. Today he was a TIGER rearing and bucking at Nick’s slightest ask to move in the pen at liberty! But, true to his calm, grounded nature, Nick stood his ground and did not get sucked into any drama.
From the start he had set up a mini-obstacle course, and like butter he had them walking through it at liberty, as if it had been their idea! Masterful! To my liking, he also touched the horses more—he knew he needed to get re-acquainted with the sorrel who seemed like a totally different horse today, and maybe he realized that the brown horse (nicknamed Leroy, for Bad Bad Leroy Brown) had needed more of that yesterday and he was making up for it?
When Leroy was having trouble with a tarp curtain, freaking out when it touched his hindquarters, Nick immediately made the obstacle easier by gathering up one half of the tarps, and the horses went through easy-peasy. Brilliant! (He spoke of this in his demo, setting up his horse to feel like he’s awesome, and this was a perfect example of that principle). He then rode the sorrel, we’ll call him BUCKY (you’ll see why) out into the arena, just like that, even though to us spectators, that horse hadn’t seemed to calm down yet. And Yeehaw! The rodeo was on. It is still amazing to me that Nick did not come off that horse. What kicks, what rears, what bucks, what combos of all three! Nick just stayed his calm cowboy self and even talked to the audience while it was happening. He explained that he came out into the arena because he could tell that Bucky was bored in the pen and needed a new challenge. And, then he had Bucky go into the pen and back out, in and out. By this point, Bucky was bucky no more. He had his pen wrangler set up two barrels at the entrance of the pen, and the barrels got closer together each time the horse left the pen. In, out, in, out. And, finally, he put a big green ball between the barrels, and the sorrel just pushed through it to go in. Job Done! That was such clever mental one-upmanship he showed to the horse---he didn’t enter the fray or go to the horse’s place. He invited the horse to use his energy for good, for an interesting purpose, and all changed for the better. Fantastic to see!
When he went to work Leroy under saddle, he still couldn’t get too near and Leroy would be tensed. So, Nick jumped back on Bucky and basically worked one un-started colt from the other un-started colt!!! Genius!
After that, he rode Leroy at the walk and immediately took him out into the arena—again, huge explosion began but fizzled out quickly as Leroy also seemed to see the light (like Dan’s horse)…it’s like he said, “Oh, so that’s why this guy has been doing all this stuff around me! For this? I like this!” He transformed into a soft, browned butter, instead of a slab of brown rock! Nick Dowers has got the power!
What can I say that you won’t already hear elsewhere! She is such a competitor!! Watch out! She came to win and to do so with a smile, a social grace, an ease, and a frankness that continues to be refreshing no matter how many times I see her. I like that today she did not use a bit, but rode both her horses in a halter. This seemed to make them less reactive, and, again, of course, she did bodywork. I didn’t take a lot of notes because Vicki is Vicki, and you know she’s going to reach the endline smiling and getting it all done no matter what horse she is given, what obstacle comes her way. It is simply in her genetic makeup and life experience: Overcome. Win. Be good, kind, and humble doing it. But don’t be Silent. Be a good role model for people and for the horse. Vicki, you are da bomb.
Every time I looked over, there were no challenges or drama in her pen, just laughter. It was either the roan chewing on an umbrella from a strange cart that had all kinds of “scary” items on it (neither horse seemed scared at anything she threw at them). Or Vicki riding the sorrel with a huge umbrella in one hand. She rode both while waving a huge flag behind, above, and beside them, touching them on the bum with it, and getting no reaction at all. She had them jumping barrels, and riding through all the obstacles, bridge, and tarp like old timers. Both horses were quite forward, the roan more (and I bet she’ll jump him and gallop like nobody’s business tomorrow, that’s how well he is going for her). And, most striking contrast with the other colts? Her colts stand around her and exude affection and closeness already—they are bonded! My conclusion with her is: she’s a champion, whether it looks pretty, sounds pretty or not. And, it mostly does. She knows horses. She loves horses. Horses love her. It’s not magic. It’s grit, guts, lots of balance and physical strength in her body, and hard, hard work. Decades of it. So glad this competition is getting her recognized in the U.S.
And, that was Round Two. Stay Tuned for the Finals!