Sunday, April 13, was blustery, with a few snowflakes in the air. Even so, the boarders at my place, Meadowview Stables in Mettawa, Ill., were getting their horses ready for spring. With a long, hard winter just ending, many of the stables’ horses were “barn sour,” restless from being stuck inside or having to deal with snow and mud in the pastures. Because of bad weather, lack of training, or temperament, many horses weren’t ready for the trails. Kathy Mitchel, one of the boarders, suggested an activity that would help riders prepare for trail riding while having fun at the same time—a trail class competition.
I had spent part of this winter in Aiken, South Carolina, where I had observed competitive partnership courses, which included various obstacles for horse and rider to overcome. In addition, boarder Bill Protz suggested the book, “Bomb Proofing Your Horse,” for additional ideas. As a result, a course was laid out in the indoor arena, filled with all sorts of “scary things,” many of which were easily found in the stable. Others we purchased from the Dollar Store or were built by the barn’s manager Ruben Marquez. Some of these distractions included beach balls, balloons, an old bicycle, barrels covered with horse blankets, hula hoops, tarps, dust sticks in red barrier cones, plastic bottles filled with “noisy” pebbles, a wooden bridge, a plastic play pool filled half-way with water (which the horses had to walk through), and aluminum foil fabric which the horses walked over or dragged. The most challenging obstacle was a “car wash” the horses had to pass through. It was constructed with a wooden frame from which multi-colored pool noodles dangled (see photo). Later, a water sprinkler hose was connected to the contraption.
Before the competition, we set up practice sessions. About fifteen people showed up to work and play with their horses. Boarders offered each other encouragement and suggestions. Afterward, the riders retired to Meadowview’s Buckaroo Lounge for a potluck lunch with food and drink provided by the participants. The discussion and laughter continued through the afternoon. It was a great opportunity for boarders to help and to bond with each other.
The following Sunday, about a dozen boarders worked with their horses on an even more complex course. Additional “scary” obstacles included a make-shift gate, party poppers with flying confetti, and a motion-activated screeching witch popping out from a pile of balloons.
These and other weekend practices will lead to a Partnership Challenge Trail Class Competition. Horse and rider, either mounted or in-hand, will navigate through a course of challenging obstacles. Each obstacle is given a three-point value. One point is lost for each refusal; after three refusals no point is given. The highest score wins. If there is a tie, the fastest time wins.
Of course, the point of the event is not who wins or loses. Everyone who participated in the practices was a winner. One boarder had no idea how her horse would react to distractions on the trail. She was delighted to work with it in a safe environment with so many other riders there to help and offer encouragement.
While no horse may be 100 percent bomb-proof, because of this activity, Meadowview riders should experience far fewer falls on the trail this summer.