Checkers Takes the Challenge

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The Joy of Demonstrating at the AQHA Show


by Mark Bolender

Photo Credit: too trick

I love the AQHA shows. In July of 2011 I had the privilege of attending the Region 5 event in Langley, British Columbia. I was a demonstrator, clinician, and judge for the sport of Mountain Trail and Trail Trials. Even though it was a long drive from Bolender Horse Park, it was a warm summer day with bright blue skies.

I found the show grounds far more beautiful than I had seen them eleven years ago. Back then my horse Checkers was a yearling and getting ready for a lunge line futurity. Now, he had matured and returned to help me demonstrate a whole new sport.

Bill Cassidy had some obstacles already in place. He was a big help in setting up a huge course using logs, boulders, plants, poles, and lots more. When completed we had a Mountain Trail course that not only looked great, it would challenge any horse at any skill level. I thought, “Checkers likes a challenge, but this time he’s in for a big one!”

During the competition the stands were packed with excited guests and there was standing room only. When Checkers turn came, he was announced with lots of fanfare, but barely noticed any of it. He sensed it was going to be time to focus on what I trained him to do. As the performers faded away, it was just me and Checkers out in the open, and against the obstacles. He didn’t miss a beat and wasn’t distracted by the performers, the audience, or by the unfamiliar, odd-shaped obstacles. Without flinching he dropped his head, inspected the obstacles, and confidently flowed through like wind through the trees.

Did I mention Checkers didn’t have a bridle? For the whole demonstration he was on his own. He looked to me for some guidance, based on the partnership we’d established over the years. You could hear a pin drop in the stands as he performed. When he concluded, there was a thunderous roar and the crowd was on its feet. Sometimes you get the feeling that Checkers is a bit of show off, as though he likes to please crowds, and this time he did it in style.

The next day I gave a clinic to a grand mix of riders. They ranged from teenagers to older adults. Some had a lot of show experience while others were green; half rode english and half western. That is the great appeal of Mountain Trail; any one of any age or background can participate and master it.

I began with a mental exercise where the riders were asked to back up their horse without looking, touching, pulling, or talking to their horse. It’s a very powerful illustration and leads to a partnership with the horse in just minutes. It allows the horse to instinctively trust you for your worthiness as a leader. Each person made progress by realizing that establishing such a leadership role comes from within them. After that, each rider learned how to drive their horse through obstacles, each time letting the horse “think it through.”

As the hours went by, all riders and horses appreciated the difference between forcing and allowing a horse to do its job. There were a few frustrated tears at first, but many smiles resulted as the students successfully navigated dangerous obstacles safely and easily. Those observing were quite impressed at the changes in the horses.

Later that afternoon the course was changed slightly to get ready for the show. The riders were excited and ready to go as the bleachers filled with spectators. As the show proceeded, the audience was amazed that so many horses were able to navigate the difficult obstacles, and to do so with style and finesse. The best performances occurred when the rider allowed the horse to lower its heads and place its feet on its own. It was also fun to see the smiles of achievement as the awards were given out.

The AQHA recognizes the beauty and skill of Mountain Trail. It’s fun and challenging for both horse and rider. I can only hope this new sport is similarly received across the globe.

Happy trails and Bolender Blessings.


Published December 2011 Issue

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