It’s been a long time since I’ve smiled like this from the back of a horse.
I’ve felt plenty of emotions during my quest for a high-point buckle from my local riding association. Frustration at my perpetual inability to pick up a right lead. Anxiety over memorizing reining patterns. Satisfaction over a decent showmanship class.
But I’ve never experienced the unbridled joy that’s causing the massive ear-to-ear grin currently taking over my face. The grin is warranted; I’ve just galloped hell-for-leather—on a handy Missouri Fox Trotter gelding named Riley—through a shallow pond, sprays of water drenching me head to toe and flaxen mane whipping into my face. Living out this quintessential cowgirl tableau, it’s impossible not to smile.
It’s not my first or only smile of the day. Thanks to my hosts—extreme mountain trail enthusiasts Jim Goff and Roger Cohen—I’ve just spent the day at the privately owned Chester Horse Park in Evergreen, Colorado, tackling obstacles seamlessly embedded into the mountain landscape of the ranch’s horse park. Among many others, there was the smile of triumph from carefully negotiating a 360 on a very small, raised wooden block; the smile of adventure sliding down a steep, rocky trail; and the smile of both thrill and accomplishment that came after riding Riley across a narrow, elevated bridge—essentially an equine balance beam.
In my single-minded pursuit of horse show ribbons, pattern precision, and arena perfection, I realize I’ve been sacrificing a critical part of why I’ve always loved riding: the element of fun. And if there’s one thing that extreme mountain trail is, it’s fun.
To the Extreme
Imagine an arena trail class on steroids, add in the high production value of a Disneyland ride, and you’ll have an idea of what an extreme mountain trail course looks like. It’s a veritable equestrian amusement park. Instead of ground poles, cones, and rope gates, there’s an elaborate manmade landscape of realistic trail obstacles, complete with log crossings, streams, trees, and boulders. Do a YouTube search for “extreme mountain trail” and prepare to be awestruck.
The discipline emerged nearly two decades ago out of a desire for more realistic obstacles in trail classes. In 2000, Oregon Horse Center owner Major Defoe set up an arena course that looked straight out of the Pacific Northwest’s rugged backcountry, and extreme mountain trail was born.
With horses of all breeds and disciplines able to participate, enthusiasm grew rapidly and standardized rules and objectives for navigating its obstacles were soon established, setting the framework for competition.
“It’s not about going through the course as fast as possible,” explains Jim. “It’s about finesse; subtlety; confidence; and, most importantly, trust.”
From the Ground Up
We begin the day with a groundwork session in the indoor arena, which houses standard trail obstacles, such as a platform, bridge, and trot poles, along with unique objects to test any horse’s spook threshold, including a life-sized Darth Vader.
Jim and Roger emphasize the importance of first establishing a good relationship with your horse through a groundwork session, the foundation for any successful ride, but particularly one that asks a horse to negotiate foreign obstacles.
“We start with groundwork for a variety of reasons,” says Roger. “Groundwork helps us figure out where the horse’s head is, gets him listening to us, and minimizes as much as possible our chances of getting hurt. Safety and trust are key, and groundwork sets the right tone.”
We first tackle what Jim calls “getting the horse to stay out of your bubble,” meaning your horse shouldn’t crowd you, stops when you stop, and maintains an appropriate amount of distance whether you’re moving forward, backing up, or pivoting. We then practice halting from the trot, backing up without lead rope pressure, and turning on the forehand and haunches.
Jim explains that defining a personal-space zone is important for safety purposes, whether introducing a horse to an obstacle on a mountain trail course or walking by more domestic obstacles at home—say, the commotion of a farrier’s forge or a blowing hay tarp. Spending time establishing a buffer zone lessens the chance that your horse will climb into your lap and run you down when he gets nervous.
A Growing Organization
The International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) is the governing organization of mountain trail. The IMTCA develops activities, standardizes training protocols, and maintains regulations and certifications for mountain trail competition. Visit imtca.org for an event calendar, a list of mountain trail courses, and obstacle descriptions.
Riley is pretty handy, so we progress quickly to maneuvering through the obstacles in-hand. We cross narrow bridges, sidepass over logs, and do 180s on teeter-totters.
“This in-hand work is what’s going to make a better trail horse,” Jim tells me. “Without being able to do these things on the ground, it’ll be difficult to have much success when you’re in the saddle.”
I’m impressed by how responsive Riley is, and I wonder if my own mare, Angel, would be quite so willing. I’ve been neglecting groundwork lately, and watching the big palomino gelding respond promptly to even my subtlest cues is an important reminder about the importance of this type of work. Like Jim says, “Training starts the minute you start interacting with your horse, not just when you swing a leg over their back.”
Creativity and Confidence
Warmed up and mounted up, we head to the horse park, where the obstacles range from basic groundpoles to a wooden bridge over a manmade stream complete with waterfall. With a little creativity, however, even the humblest obstacle becomes a valuable training tool.
A 2-foot-by-2-foot square of poles, for example, is simple in its construction but can be tackled several ways; each approach involves a different level of difficulty. First, Jim asks me to walk Riley over the obstacle. Easy enough. Then he challenges me to get Riley’s front legs inside the square. Upping the ante once again, he asks me to complete a turn on the forehand, keeping Riley’s forelegs firmly planted inside the square. One obstacle, multiple ways to work on control and precision.
Creativity and multifunctionality seem to be hallmarks of extreme mountain trail course construction. Simple objects and natural formations are combined to produce a near-infinite number of obstacles designed to challenge all levels of riders. A grove of trees becomes an obstacle course to back up through; a sidepass exercise is made even more difficult on an incline; ground poles placed randomly like Pick-Up Sticks task a horse with thinking about his foot placement; and teeter-totters make an exciting platform for 180s, 360s, and backing up. Thinking of ways I can create such obstacles back home gets my mental wheels spinning, and I wonder how Angel would feel about walking along a narrow beam or picking her way through a log maze.
My favorite series of challenges from the Chester Horse Park course perfectly illustrates how obstacles are combined to put the “extreme” in extreme mountain trail. Working a gate, walking through a water obstacle, and dismounting onto a platform are fairly common training exercises, but I’ve never attempted all three simultaneously, as Jim was now asking me to do. First, I have to work a gate; easy enough except the gate opens almost directly into a pond. In this pond is a rock—a teeny tiny rock island—that Jim asks me to dismount on. Standing there, I try to telepathically communicate to Riley, “Please don’t move. Please don’t move,” imagining the horrible embarrassment of being marooned should Riley decide to walk off.
“Now ask him to move,” says Jim. Of course, I think to myself.
Riley is well-trained, so when I swing the rein tail at his hip to send him forward and around the rock, he does so willingly, graciously keeping his body parallel to the rock so that I can easily mount up again. Thanks to the novelty of the obstacles, the beautiful surroundings, and the good horse under me, a smile is plastered on my face throughout the challenge.
A few of the obstacles are personally challenging; attempting them test the boundaries of my comfort zone. In particular, the “cake box,” a multi-tiered obstacle of gradually higher and smaller platforms, roughly the shape of a pyramid, causes my heart to beat a bit faster and my palms to get sweaty. A nasty tumble a few years ago has left me anxious about heights and narrow ledges, and the cake box incorporates both.
Jim coaches me to be confident; set my horse up for success; allow him time to think; and, most important, to trust my willing mount. I circle the lowest tier a few times, trying to summon my courage. Then I angle Riley toward the next level up, move the reins forward along his neck, and gently nudge with my calves. After briefly sniffing the ledge, he steps up without hesitation. Another step up and another, and we summit the cake box. My reward is another deposit in my confidence bank and an elevated view of the magnificent Colorado mountainscape. And, of course, a joyful smile.
Bushes, Puddles, and Smiles
After a day of extreme mountain trail riding under my belt, I’m excited to apply some of its principles to my home training program. Angel, for her part, seems happy to take a break from drills of rollbacks and shoulder-ins.
Although I don’t have suspension bridges, teeter-totters, or waterfalls at my disposal, my home trails have plenty of logs, hills, and scrub brush. Angel and I back up through a maze of willows, pick our way across a jumble of logs, and practice sidepassing up and down hills.
The Man Behind the Sport
The growing popularity of mountain trail is owed, in large part, to the efforts of Mark Bolender, founder of the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association. Bolender promotes the discipline through clinics and publications and has built courses around the world, including the Chester Horse Park. He earned national titles in the sport in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
Bolender owns and operates the Bolender Horse Park in Silver Creek, Washington, one of the most comprehensive mountain trail courses in the world. There he hosts trail challenges and clinics, offers private training, and runs an internship program. Learn more at bolenderhorsepark.com.
Riding after a rainstorm, I discover that a shallow depression in a dirt road has gifted us with our very own water obstacle. Usually, I’d just ride through the puddle or around it, but extreme mountain trail has inspired me to use my surroundings in new and creative ways. We don’t just walk through the puddle—we stand in it, back through it, and do a turn on the forehand, each footfall sending up a splash of water.
Angel and I are working on the same skills we do for performance competition—precision, control, lateral movement, patience, halting, etc.—but with the help of obstacles, our training is fun instead of a chore. Angel seems to agree. She certainly seems happier, both in and out of the arena. She’s more engaged, alert, and confident. It’s fun to watch her think about how to navigate obstacles. In her way, I know she’s also smiling.