Imagine for a moment picking a feral dog out of a pack of 10 or so, and trying to teach that wild animal to abandon its instincts and trust you. Name any animal, for that matter: the task is daunting. Now imagine facing a wild horse weighing more than 1,000 pounds, and having just a few hours to earn its trust well enough for the horse to be rideable and willing to perform a presentation and navigate an obstacle course in front of a packed arena. The annual Road to the Horse Competition measures horsemanship by doing just that.
The event was so named by Tootie Bland and late husband Steven (it was originally El Camino de Caballo, only people didn’t pronounce it correctly) and refers to the movement to get back to our roots of taming and training horses in a natural way, to listen and work with the horse as the horse does within the herd, and shed the predator role that humans have adopted in the past. Three of the world’s top horse trainers and clinicians gather in the same arena, pick geldings out of a remuda of 10 horses, then in a little over three hours they rope, train and display them, all the while wearing headpiece microphones so the crowd can hear their every word.
Craig Cameron, Bluff Dale, Texas, took top honors at the 2010 Road to the Horse, leaving the Tennessee Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with the distinction of being the 2010 World Champion of Colt-Starting.
“Really, it is a man working through the power of understanding. Those circumstances change moment to moment when you’re in there with a horse that’s really a wild horse,” Cameron says. “You’ve got to keep remembering that the horse is a prey animal, and if you push too hard – heck, if you push too fast or present things in a way he can’t understand – you’re going to get nothing but instinct from the horse, the instinct to survive. When a horse starts working like that, he bites or kicks or bucks or paws, he does whatever he has to do. Your main job is to show him that you’re not going to hurt him.”
In the beginning though, when Cameron and fellow horsemen Richard Winters and Ken McNabb gathered to pick which horse they’d work with, the power of understanding escaped many in the arena as Cameron selected a small 2007 AQHA Palomino gelding, WR Shining Alamo.
“He was probably the least likely horse anybody was going to choose,” Cameron says. “I knew I might be going out on a limb picking the horse that I picked because he was wild-looking, he was ragged-looking, and he didn’t have much polish on him at all, but what I did like, and the reason I chose him, is he acted brave.”
Cameron could tell Shining Alamo’s bravery by how he acted within the remuda. He would move away from the rest of the pack of horses, he’d slip away, put his head down and look around at his surroundings.
“I thought to myself, ‘You know, that horse there, he’s got some bravery to him,’” Cameron says.
Initially, it seemed like a mistake. When Cameron first went into the pen to work him during the first training session, Shining Alamo didn’t want anything to do with him.
“Honestly, I had to use all of my skills to get the halter on that horse. He was head-shy and really on guard, but when I got him haltered and got to work, he started coming through and was the brave horse that I thought he might be.”
After the first short training session on Day 1 where each horse made slow progress, it was on to Day 2 with the competition wide open. As horse and rider got to know one another and trust was gained, the three horsemen showcased their horses adeptly through the required rail work and obstacle course. Adding a twist, the Road to the Horse obstacle course included a person sitting in a chair wearing a gorilla costume. All three colts breezed by the unusual obstacle without drama.
Each year, the final stage of the competition features a short freestyle presentation where horsemen select a performance to showcase their colt’s strong points and accomplishments over the two days. Cameron – who’d nicknamed his horse Troubadour after his favorite George Strait song – chose to ride to his colt’s namesake song, at one point dropping the reins and dramatically outstretching his arms while at a canter.
In the end, it was Cameron who rose above the other two horsemen to claim the title of World Champion. It was his third attempt at the title, and that made it all the sweeter for him.
“Every time I’ve competed at Road to the Horse, I’ve left a piece of my heart in the arena. Now I’m getting a little bit of that back. I truly believe winning Road to the Horse is going to change my life. I’m 61 years old, and now I am a world champion and no one can ever take that away from me. This may be the best day of my life.”
Here’s guessing three hours of natural horsemanship – think of roping a wild horse in the morning and working cattle with him in the evening – was probably a life-changing experience for more than just Cameron.
Caleb Regan and his wife, Gwen, live in rural Douglas County, Kansas, where they enjoy hunting, fishing, and raising and growing as much of their own food as they can. Caleb can’t imagine a better scenario than getting to work on a rural lifestyle magazine as a profession, and then living that same lifestyle right in the heartland of America. Connect with him on Google+.