Traveling the Road to the Horse

Cowgirls kick off this colt-starting championship in Lexington, Kentucky

AQHA Media

It's an exciting moment when the AQHA-Four Sixes Remuda thunders into the arena. That's Boon River Lad at right.

It's an exciting moment when the AQHA-Four Sixes Remuda thunders into the arena. That's Boon River Lad at right.

Road to the Horse has christened 2017 the celebration of the cowgirl, and it's quite a party. The guests of honor at the event that runs through Sunday in Lexington, Kentucky, are competitors Sarah Dawson, Kate Neubert, Rachelle Valentine and Vicki Wilson, along with their dance partners Smart Hunt, Sixes Captain, Playin A Seven and Boon River Lad.

Road to the Horse is a colt-starting challenge, sponsored in part by AQHA, that gives competitors three days to start the training process on mostly unhandled 3-year-old colts from the famed Four Sixes Ranch in Guthrie, Texas. On the third day, the new riding horses are asked to negotiate a difficult obstacle course, as well as demonstrate basics such as performing all three gaits on the rail, lifting their feet and backing up. It's a test of the trainers' skill and the horses' trust.

As the event kicked off Friday, the women selected their colts from a larger remuda of 12, and then set to work. Let's first introduce you to all eight of the competitors:

Sarah Winters Dawson, the daughter of past RTTH champion Richard Winters, is appearing at her second colt-starting championship. In the performance arena, Sarah has earned two National Reined Cow Horse Association world championships, was the 2015 Snaffle Bit Futurity Limited Open Champion and has been a finalist in every NRCHA premiere event.

Sarah and her husband, Chris, operate Dawson Performance Horses in Aubrey, Texas. Their focus is reined cow horses, but Sarah also has experience training and showing in three-day eventing.

Sarah's experiences also include working as a contract colt starter.

For her 2017 Road to the Horse partner, Sarah selected Smart Hunt, a sorrel son of WR This Cats Smart, who won the 2005 National Cutting Horse Association open finals. Foals of this leading NCHA and NRCHA sire have earned $8.6 million and 1,975 AQHA points. His dam is the good Four Sixes mare Whiskey And Quail, a daughter of Paddys Irish Whiskey. 

After their first day's work, Sarah reported that she liked Smart Hunt a lot, saying he was the kind of "feel-y," thinking athlete that she loved to ride. She used a saddle horse to get the colt used to seeing a human up above his back.

Kate Neubert is the daughter of previous RTTH judge and clinician Bryan Neubert. She grew up starting colts with her father and brothers and has since gone on to a career in the performance horse industry. Kate has worked in the cutting, reining and cow horse industries, training and competing in all three disciplines.

Her achievements include winning the 2012 Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association Intermediate Open Futurity and advancing two horses to the semi-finals at the 2014 NCHA Futurity, her first year to show at the prestigious event. Kate is approaching $200,000 in NCHA earnings.

She continues to be an integral part of MC Cutting Horses in Los Olivos, California.

Kate's choice from the remuda was the one that surprised Dr. Glenn Blodgett, the Four Sixes veterinarian and horse division manager. The Four Sixes has some nice performance lines reflected in their remuda, but Dr. Blodgett likes to mix some racing blood in, as well, to bolster speed and stamina. The racing-breds tend to be a little hotter and perhaps more difficult to start, but Kate said she wanted a colt that would have the endurance to make it through three tough days of training and still have something left in the tank on the third day. So, she picked the buckskin Sixes Captain.

This colt is by Captain Courage, a son of Mr Jess Perry who won more than $213,000 on the track. His maternal granddam, See You In Vegas, comes from the breeding program (and the same bloodlines) that produced Frenchmans Guy and French Flash Hawk, the five-time barrel horse of the year. 

Kate spent a lot of time laying a foundation on her colt on Friday and even worked him in a surcingle and long lines. That allowed her to "get a ride in on him" without ever getting on his back, she said. But he learned the basics of rein aids and got used to things touching him all over his body.

After high school, Rachelle Valentine became an intern for Clinton Anderson. Soon after that, she stepped into a position with NRHA trainer Deon Locke, working with his young prospects.

When Rachelle and her family relocated to central Florida, RTTH Wild Card competitor Sean Patrick hired her as an assistant. Now an associate trainer with Sean Patrick Training, Rachelle rides youngsters, reining and hunt-seat prospects, as well as a variety of other horses.

Disclaimer: The colt that Rachelle selected from the Four Sixes remuda is the one that I've been drooling over since I first saw the colts late last summer. He's a big gray hunk of a horse who just happens to be a full brother to Seven Attraction, the horse that Nick Dowers won the competition with in 2016. I'm not the only admirer of this colt; he seems to be a fan favorite.

Playin A Seven is by Playin Attraction, an NRCHA intermediate open futurity champion and open futurity reserve champion. His dam, Lizzie Seven, is by Seven From Heaven, an AQHA world champion cutting horse.

Rachelle said the colt -- whom she is calling "Checkers" after Chubby Checkers -- is exactly what she expected: a bold, pushy horse who was quick to give trust but not so quick to show respect. She said she knew she could work through the pushiness, and she thinks his bravery will be an asset in negotiating the obstacle course, where a horse with less courage can get rattled.

Vicki Wilson is one of New Zealand's most successful and well-respected show jumpers, known for her competitive edge at the highest levels.

But there's more to her than that; she is also famous for doing bareback and bridleless jumping demonstrations, as well as for working with wild horses in New Zealand, Australia and the United States. She and her sisters, Kelly and Amanda, starred in the top-rated television series "Keeping Up With the Kaimanawas," (which is what the New Zealand wild horses are called), as well as two documentaries and four best-selling books.

Vicki does her own chiropractic adjustments to make horses more comfortable, and she even did one on Friday, adjusting the poll of Boon River Lad, the bay gelding she choose to be her partner for the weekend.

Vicki, true to her roots, wore a helmet and breeches instead of the boots and cowboy hats that are more normally seen in the RTTH arena. And instead of saddling the horse to get him used to something on his back, she instead hopped on bareback, first just putting a little weight on one side of his back, but then later sitting on him fully, moving her legs and arms across his body to get him used to the sensation of touch.

She made some great progress with her colt, but toward the end of their hour and 45 minutes in the round pen, she needed to do a quick dismount and dislocated her shoulder in the process. She later reported that it was back in place and she fully expected to be back in action when the competition resumes Saturday afternoon.

Boon River Lad is by Boon San, a full brother to NCHA Horse of the Year Boon San Kitty. And the colt's dam is Three Eights Bedouin, by racing champion Royal Quick Dash.

Although it's still anyone's game -- with plenty of points still up for grabs -- here are the scores from Round 1:

Kate Neubert: 356
Vicki Wilson: 346
Sarah Dawson: 317
Rachelle Valentine: 304