2009 Road to the Horse: A Newbie's Personal Account

Horse & Rider Editorial Coordinator Erin Sullivan Haynes shares her personal experiences and her top-three surprises from the exciting 2009 Road to the Horse colt-starting competition.
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H&R's Editorial Coordinator Erin Sullivan Haynes with 2009 Road to the Horse competitor John Lyons and H&R's Managing Editor Alana Harrison |

H&R's Editorial Coordinator Erin Sullivan Haynes with 2009 Road to the Horse competitor John Lyons and H&R's Managing Editor Alana Harrison |

Many perks come with working at Horse & Rider. One of the occupational bonuses I was particularly looking forward to during my first year here was attending the 2009 Road to the Horse (RTTH) colt-starting competition. I had heard that the legendary event, held this year in Franklin, Tenn., and produced by renowned cowgirl Tootie Bland, was a "big deal." Just how big a deal? An eye-riveting, blow-the-roof-off, jump-out-of-your-seat big deal--I soon found out!

All I knew about the event was what my coworker, Managing Editor Alana Harrison, had divulged to me: It's a two-day competition in which three renowned trainers have approximately three hours to start a virtually unhandled horse and ride it through an obstacle course in front of a crowd of thousands. My reaction, "That's impossible." Turns out, I had a lot to learn.

I saddled up and trekked to Tennessee (another first for me) curious, excited and a little skeptical of what 2009's competing horsemen, John Lyons, defending champion Tommy Garland, and eventual victor Richard Winters, would be able to accomplish under the extraordinary circumstances. I returned to the H&R office amazed, educated and eager for 2010. Here are my "Top Three RTTH Surprises" from that one-of-a-kind weekend.

1. Arena Sport? Natural Horsemanship

I've attended sell-out events for many of America's (and Canada's) favorite professional sporting events. I wasn't expecting to find that caliber of intensity and excitement at RTTH, but I soon found out that was a mistake. The fans at RTTH horse are majorly pumped to be there and majorly invested in what happens with these horses and who wins. The fans' enthusiasm and loyalty fills the arena with a contagious buzz of excitement and anticipation.

I was surprised to hear well-choreographed cheers for each of the competitors echoing from the stands. By the time the sold-out event progressed to the final obstacle course, the cheers of encouragement and excitement were at an all-out roar. The good-hearted spirit of competition was impossible not to get caught up in. I arrived a determined impartial observer, but found that soon enough I, too, was secretly pulling for my "favorite."

2. What These Guys (and Horses) Can Do

I have to admit, I was a little skeptical of what even elite horse trainers like this year's competitors could do in a mere three hours (which included multiple, mandatory breaks for horses and trainers). Shame on me for doubting. The progress that was made by all three of the trainers was incredible. Talk about awe-inspiring to see a band of beautiful, but practically wild, horses pound into an arena, and a mere day later watch three of the same horses tackle an obstacle course under saddle, track a steer, carry a standing rider and calmly navigate past a squawking chicken (you had to be there), among many other things. It was a testament to the skill of the trainers and their devotion to the well-being of the horses, as well as to the adaptability and strength of the horses themselves.

3. Learning from the Stands

Unlike pro-sporting events, where all I typically learn is how to eat a hot dog while balancing an ice cream cone on my lap, RTTH was a major learning experience. Not only was I entertained by the excitement, but I also left with new techniques and philosophies to try with my own horse. I'll just say it how it is: The three competing clinicians made more progress in three hours than I've made with my gelding all year! Talk about a motivational wake-up call and a jumpstart to go home and get down to business. I learned new ways to help teach my gelding respect (although he's 13, not 3, and should know this stuff already) and saw a two-day marathon of patience and determination--two things we all need to be reminded to incorporate in our horse lives.

I can't wait for the 2010 Road to the Horse! See you there! Please come talk to us and tell us why you love RTTH. We'll be the gals sporting the Horse & Rider shirts and smiles!