As I walk around the arena and ready myself for the day’s events, it is a bittersweet anxiety that takes me over. On the one hand, I am excited to see how everyone fares today. On the other, I am worried about how everyone will fare today.
After all, each one of the competitors has come back from multiple surgeries and injuries, and has invested a lot of time, energy, effort, and money into preparing for this competition (either directly or indirectly). I know for a fact that Dan James traveled all over the U.S. last year, training colts, in preparation for this day, and I was already aching for him as I knew that Vicki Wilson does not lose. To anyone.
Each competitor is special and powerful in his/her own way, and I want them to shine. Oh! It’s tough to spectate this competition. Must be even tougher to be in it! It’s also day three, and I am almost wiped out from all the emotion—I feel for the competitors, I feel for the colts, so many feelings…
A couple people ask me who I am rooting for, and I reply “Everyone!” There truly is not one undeserving competitor in the competition. But, when a few others ask me who I think will win, I say, without any hesitation, “Vicki Wilson.” There’s just something about how she connects with her horses and homes in on getting things done that is unbeatable. From watching her last year, I can say that day three is where she shines so bright, there is no way to dim that light. She is a competitor who never loses sight of the end-goal, and that end-goal is to cross the finish line a victor with a colt that is physically and mentally intact.
[Later that day, in talking with my young daughter about what a powerhouse Vicki is in this competition (my daughter saw Vicki in action last year), my daughter had a brilliant insight. She said, “I think Vicki is so used to obstacles, pressure, strong horses, and memorizing courses because of her Grand Prix experience. Road to the Horse probably seems easy to her.” Wow. I was speechless. And proud. My kid is 14! Yep, I think my daughter needs to do this reporting from now on. But, for this year, you’re stuck with me, folks.]
Okay, back to the experience of Day Three at Road to the Horse 2018—the Final Round.
Stadium is almost full today, and thrumming with excitement. The cowboy Pastor has held a lovely church service, someone has fainted, and the rest of us are fidgeting in our seats or getting to them in a rush. The arena is filled with obstacles and boobytraps set to challenge the 6 young colts that will be ridden through here. At the entrance to the arena there is a round pen. Each contestant will be given 20 minutes in that pen, and the judges will award a maximum of 110 points (the same amount of points awarded to previous rounds that were almost quadruple the amount of minutes long). Once out of the pen, for the remaining 840 points, each contestant will have to do rail work (declare their: three gaits in each direction: walk, trot, canter; stop; 180 degree turn left; 180 degree turn right; dismount; mount; and lifting of each hoof). After that, obstacle course time, and a freestyle option ensue, time permitting. I think the total time for the arena work is about 40 minutes. The judges will also judge on horse’s demeanor (willingness, softness, etc.).
There are 11 obstacles in the arena, and the contestants are walked through each one, knowing that some surprising adjustments will be ahead when they come to compete! The 11 obstacles (and their surprises) are:
1) 6 bending poles: contestant must ride serpentine style in each direction around the poles.
2) a Zigzag cavaletti canal: wide mouth entrance formed by cavaletti on the floor and flanked by two upright poles held up by feed bags. The path then narrows into a zig zagging canal to ride through, with cavaletti at knee height to the horse. (Surprise: feathers are strewn along the canal)
3) A pin wheel of cavaletti anchored by a huge Mardi Gras mask in the middle. Cavaletti get higher as they get to the mask. Highest point is about knee height of the horse. Contestant must walk over the cavaletti in both directions, with more points for being closer to the center where the mask is.
4) Big white tarp to be traversed.
5) 6 “jumps” on a jumping course: i) poles in an x-shape, ii) 2 cavaletti on the ground iii) low jump with striped, thick pole, iv) cavaletti on the ground, and v) knee-high double-pole jump.
6) Big horse-shoe-shaped poles inside of which jut pool noodles. The horseshoes have embedded LED lights that change color, and the noodle walk is quite tight. Horse and rider have to pass through the noodles.
7) Scarecrow: Must walk up, and grab the rope hanging on one side and drop the rope.
8) Scarecrow and Drag: Grab rope on the other side of the scarecrow and pull the drag, on which there are papier mache roosters and chickens.
9) Open gate, close gate, and ring the bell. Walk over a platform. (Surprise: a big stuffed coyote is hanging on the gate)
10) Approach a huge Disney-like castle. (Surprise: a princess comes out in glittery costume at the roof of the castle)
11) Approach the huge, small-truck-sized birthday cake that we know has the capacity to open, but we don’t yet know what the challenge will be. (Surprise: Cake will be lifted into the air by a pulley, revealing a curtain of glittery strands that reach almost to the ground. Horse and rider will have to ride through the curtain and under the cake.)
[Warning: I started off with great intentions and the ability to write notes on what was transpiring. This ability dove exponentially with each competitor as I got not only worn out but emotionally invested. Hard to focus on what was happening and write it all down! So, I apologize in advance!]
1st Competitor: Dan JAMES
My guess before he starts: I think he is in a strong position to do well as he took a lot of time in groundwork to teach his horses the cue for going through obstacles and moving forward. This will, I predict come in handy for the obstacle course and even the rail work. I don’t know the trust level, though, that is there from his colts; it is definitely not as strong as Vicki with her horses. And, as a friend of mine said, “Vicki would have to really screw up for Dan to win.” My thought to that was, “Well, then, I guess he won’t win, because ‘screw up’ is not in her vocabulary!”
Round Pen: Dan and Pally
Very quickly he gets his flag and gets the yellow/Palomino colt (we’ll call him Pally) moving. When Pally stops and look at Dan, Dan approaches with horse language—putting his knuckles out and letting the horse touch him. He then puts on a halter and gets Pally to remember what a feel is. Dan mirrors his movements until he gets Pally to tune into him. Pally looks very tense and unbending. Dan makes a kissing sound when asking for forward movement; this will be useful when under saddle and out in the big arena. Pally’s right ear was injured the first day in the pens with the other horses, and it is quite swollen, so Dan explains he cannot bridle up gracefully as he will try to get it on however possible with the least pain caused to the horse. He gets the bridle on fast, and moves him out again… Dan tells us “I bring up my energy and let him relax.” If the horse doesn’t stand still, Dan disengages his hindquarters and “lets him stand.” Dan reminds Pally of all the work they’ve done by revisiting it: rubbing him, sensitizing (asking for movement), desensitizing (touching him with rope, flag, hands). Pally seems to become a more rounded, flexible version of himself; he seems to really get with Dan—the withdrawn colt with a hard eye is transforming into an attentive colt with a soft eye! And, Dan mounts up! They walk, trot (very nicely, fluidly), and then he holds lateral flexion until Pally backs up (a first). Pally is giving Dan more of his focus, and it translated to him not just being softer but also more brave! The 20 minutes are up, and Dan and Pally are in the arena!
ARENA—Dan and Pally
RAILWORK: From where I sit, I think Dan and Pally can blow this thing out of the water, but Dan doesn’t seem 100% confident. This horse was a tough nut to crack on day 1 and didn’t seem that promising. But today, he is great! But, Dan is almost too focused, probably on doing his rail work and obstacle course perfectly and maybe not feeling that Pally is there, but Pally really is! Dan seems to be riding a bit off center (as if his right leg reached longer than his left—made me wonder if that was from a recent injury?), but looking good. Pally is a bit stiff at the walk, but the trot and canters are fantastic! The next walk, this time to the right, is excellent, and his last trot has wonderful speed control. I start to get very excited for Dan. This horse is really trying!
OBSTACLE COURSE—Dan and Pally
Pally noses a pole in obstacle 1, but goes through the next 8 quite smoothly! He is gently coaxed by Dan, and things are looking quite good. At the castle, we see the surprise: A Princess comes up out of the top and peers down at the horse and rider. Pally and Dan are unfazed. Now the birthday cake. A pulley system begins to lift it off the ground, and under it is glued a curtained circle of glittery strings that reach to the ground. One of those strings breaks this palomino’s back (figuratively speaking)---Pally, so expressive, begins to warn Dan that this is too much for him. He kicks out with the right hind leg. Is disengaged and urged forward. He kicks out with the left hind leg. He paws at the ground…poor guy, he is screaming his distress, but Dan wants him to keep trying. Pally all out loses his marbles and reacts hugely with rear/buck/running off. Dan has control of him, but it’s too late to regain Pally’s mind and composure. The poor colt is kaput! Dan dismounts and unsaddles him, but, before leaving urges him quite firmly through groundwork to get the colt through the curtain on the ground. Pally does it after a minute or two, but by now just seems deflated. The magic of the moment, for me, has gone. Dan then gets on him bareback and lets the poor colt relax towards home as his freestyle.
Dan and Chesty (Dan’s name, not mine)--the sorrel #11
Round pen: Very uneventful. Dan has done his homework with this little guy, and it shows. Dan covers all the bases, does a very thorough pre-flight check and is up and going.
Arena -- Dan and Chesty
Although Chesty is responding with his body to Dan, he is not so fast in relinquishing his mind. He seems to be going through the motions on the rail work, but Dan is doing a great job of keeping the colt focused on the task at hand. There are no major explosions…
Dan and Chesty look like old pros and do a great job through all of it. As Chesty progresses through the course, he gains confidence and interest, and softens to Dan much more. They ride through the glittery curtain and Dan then gallops him with a flag and a big smile on his face. Very well done! Dan hugs Tootie...
The crowd rises up to cheer him on as Dan Steers grabs the New Zealand flag and runs around the arena. Dan James runs with the American flag. Tears flow...
NICK DOWERS and Leroy
Round pen: (Sorry I missed it as I was meeting up with Lorie Duff). Looks like he had used a flag to try to get Leroy woken up or calmed down, but either which way, my audience members were not impressed. I caught Nick and Leroy as they were getting out in the arena.
My prediction: There will be explosions, but the job will get done.
Arena -- Nick and Leroy
Just like yesterday, Leroy seems to be able to gather up his mind much better when saddled up and ridden. Nick tells us that “Forward is the answer” and he wants Leroy to keep moving forward. Nick switches Leroy from left to right so that the colt can see everything out of each eye. Even as Leroy begins to do well out there, Nick warns against being greedy, and keeps his asks simple. I love the way he is letting Leroy slow down and walk after Leroy has gotten a little excited. Nick focuses a lot on Leroy’s ears and is happy to see that they are beginning to come to life. Leroy has some spooks and after Nick regains control (pretty instantaneously) he sings out in a funny, high-pitched voice “Recovery” and we all laugh with relief and amusement.
After this, Nick’s ride becomes almost like a clinic, with him talking and joking a lot! He explains that, over the past two days, when Nick asked for a try and got it, he had been letting the horse go where he was comfortable in the arena. Then, over time, this made the horse, of its own relaxed volition explore all of it. Nick is letting the clock tick on, but the rail work is becoming so smooth. At this point, Leroy is looking beautiful—like a solid ranch horse that is so bonded to Nick! I can already see a bright future for this horse whose beginnings seemed so fraught with uncertainty, fear, and resistance. (Pally, the yellow horse with Dan James, reacted similarly—I see him so bonded with Dan, and hope the two will forge a wonderful relationship from such a strong start!)
Some more Nick’isms: “Stay true to him—when it takes a hold, he’ll take a hold.” “It’ll get quite a bit worse before it gets better.” “Leroy has very strong opinions; he’ll get highly fearful before being brave.”
Big refusal at the zigzag course, but Nick wonderfully gives Leroy the time he needs to choose to go through it. It takes about 5 refusals (each time less “big”) until the horse just flows through the course as if it were easy as pie. Leroy refuses the tarp strongly enough to get Nick to pass on it. Leroy then proceeds very nicely through as much as he can…but, Nick runs out of time and it’s over. We were lucky to witness the horse softening, focusing, and getting brave…wonderful to see.
Nick and Sorrel #12
This is the horse that’s full of spunk, squirrely moves, and explosive fireworks. It’s also the horse that is so clever, mouthy, and ready to go. Nick knows he will have to keep him active to stay on and stay safe!!
Round Pen -- Nick and #12
As he works this horse, he has his wrangler stick a noodle through the bars, under which he pushes a platform, and on the other side of the platform is the big ball—very clever as it gets the horse desensitized to all at once (something he can do easily with this horse who seems to strive on stimuli). He asks the sorrel to move out, and gets into a nice walk and trot. Nick tells us that “If a horse can walk and trot freed up, loping is not a big deal.” He then proves his point and lopes in both directions in the round pen. Nick wants to teach the horse to back, so he puts his nose on the fence and gets a great try. The second time he asks, the horse backs up and then, unasked, backs up two more times. Nick explains that this is what you want to see happen when you reward with release; it motivates horses—let them see they can do it, then they like to go for more because it feels good to get that release and reward. Nick leaves the round pen with almost three minutes to spare.
Obstacle Course -- Nick and #12
Nick continues to talk and explain all his actions, as we are on the edge of our seats expecting a big wreck from this athletic, tricky little guy. Nick was so calm, ignoring the huge spooks or kick-outs, and exemplified his method of “…disrupt what you don’t want and encourage what you do want”. In other words, “Don’t tell ‘em what to do.” The horse is moving out great at this point, but still with a hard eye that have us worried more fireworks are coming. At the walk, the sorrel guy amazes, with a slow, nice walk, for such a forward colt. Nick credits the good walk to Nick’s intentions…so important! The obstacle course sees this sorrel transform into a focused, calm champion! No hesitation, absolute fluidity, no rush, no refusal! He soars over the jumps! He looks like a different horse than the bucking bronc of a few minutes ago! WOW! Nick swings the rope over his head and the horse, the horse drags like a pro…all so smooth and impressive! For his freestyle, Nick drags a bag behind him and shows what a great horse this colt is going to be! Time out!
Vicki Wilson and Sorrel#6
Prediction: As mentioned before, I am sure she will blow this out of the park!
(meet and greet with Warwick Schiller has me up above for a few minutes for her round pen time)
In the round pen this horse is great, as always—willing, needing some adjustment by Vicki to his shoulders and poll, but, otherwise looking good. Vicki bridles him up over the halter and steps out into the arena with plenty of minutes of round pen time left.
Arena -- Vicki and #6
Poor guy gets to the end of the arena and FREEZES UP. Full out freeze. Not even the ability to move his feet in any direction. Smartly, Vicki dismounts and gets him moving then makes the BRILLIANT decision to take off the bridle she had decided he would wear for this last round. As if by magic, the horse is transformed. His muscles get soft and supple, his eye softens, his demeanor is 180-degree changed. He flows!
Obstacles -- Vicki and #6
After a slight hesitation at number one, he flows through the rest like a pro! Drag? He even backs with the drag being pulled by Vicki towards him, but not before rearing and almost throwing her off! At the castle, Vicki high-fives the princess who leans out over top of it (only Vicki would do that—what a competitor!!)! Vicki is the Queen of going with the flow and making it work! As for the cake? She and her horse don’t even wait for it to be fully up in the air, touching it as it is moving upwards! The horse wants to dive into the curtain before Vicki’s head is even clearing it! It’s like Vicki’s intention is propelling the horse through! Once in, the cutey sorrel colt takes a chunk of the glitter strands in his mouth when he stands under the cake, and the crowd is screaming their approval and the arena filled with their applause!
For her freestyle she gallops with a flag, drags a stuffed horse, jumps two barrels, and then gallops with no hands (almost losing her horse, but getting him back), and then stands on him and jumps off!
What a turnaround from Frozen to Free! And all way before time was up!!!
Vicki and Roan #2
Uneventful, natural flow in there. Vicki tells us that, “Every ride should be an adventure so they want to keep coming back to school.” The crowd roars its approval.
Arena -- Vicki and Roan
Roan has a nice, curious, and tentative walk. His mind is totally with her, but he is remaining curious to his outside world. She executes an amazing, rolling canter while in two-point, and an excellent stop (cleverly executed after the canter and right at the gate where the horse wants to be at!). We can see the horse is nervous, but so hooked up to her. In comparing Vicki now with her work last year, I feel she has gained maturity and finesse and no longer just physically gets the job done regardless of the physical or mental obstacles presented by the horse. This year she is more in tune with the horses, and has made adjustments (tack and strategy) to help them relax mentally much more so that she can still win, but without explosions. The final result is much more unity between her and the horse whereas last year it was almost as if she muscled and balanced her way through it physically. Big stride forward for her and the horses.
Obstacles -- Vicki and Roan
Now, in this arena, as she works with this horse, it is obvious, once again, that she speaks horse. Period. This horse is becoming one cool customer before our very eyes. She talks of the importance of a horse’s confidence, that “You can make it or you can break it.” Wise words.
As we watch, it is obvious she makes work fun for the horse in such a natural, flowing way. Something to emulate for sure!
This horse just blows through the obstacles with such confidence and grace, it’s hard to believe it hadn’t been touched by a human until two days ago. She backs him and drags the chickens, too, and no obstacle presents any problem whatsoever.
Freestyle time, and she uses the flag around her horse and even stops and waves it around. She drags her stuffed horse and then throws it all around her colt. She gets the umbrella and rides with it, and then jumps the barrels. She is, hands-down, the champ, even before the scores are in. The crowd goes wild! Ten minutes still left on the clock!
And, at this point, I sneak out to drive to the airport and catch my flight home. But, we all know that she has won, and Dan has come in second. That was so clear. My heart breaks for Dan, swells for Nick, and rejoices for Vicki. I am grateful for their greatness which has been inspiring.
[Now, for future competitions, for anyone to be able to come close to threatening the reigning Queen of Road to the Horse, it might have to be Chris Cox. Oh, my goodness! Could you imagine? Clash of Two Titans: Chris Cox and Vicki Wilson. Hoooie! That would be a sight! And a road worth traveling on to see! Tootie Bland, are you listening?]
Friends, thanks for tuning in….hugs!