It was, without a shadow of a doubt the most electrifying event in the eight-year history of Road to the Horse – The World Championship of Colt Starting. The nation’s three largest equine clinicians shared the dirt for the first time February 25-27 in front of sold-out crowds at the Tennessee Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro, TN. Pat Parelli brought his horsemanship Savvy. Clinton Anderson displayed his Downunder thunder. But in the end, it was the earnest determination of Texas cowboy Chris Cox that won the judges’ favor and earned him his third Road to the Horse championship title and the first Legends title granted by the event.
“We thought it looked like [Cox] had the long-range plans of the horse in mind,” judge Bill Enk said. “It looked like he was preparing his horse for the next step in training the whole time.”
In a little more than three hours spread out over the course of the weekend, Parelli, Anderson and Cox were asked to select a young horse from a remuda provided by the famed 6666 Ranch of Texas, and then gentle that horse under saddle.
As the competition phase of the event started, owner/producer Tootie Bland told the crowd “I truly believe we are the luckiest people alive to be able to see these amazing men work with these fabulous horses.”
During the first day of competition, the clinicians each chose a horse with a different sire. Cox chose a gray gelding, Perfect Performance (sired by Sixes Pick and out of Best Performance by Special Effort), while Anderson chose a chestnut gelding Fletches Career (sired by Royal Fletch by Jae Bar Fletch and out of Career Model by Eddie Eighty), and Parelli chose a sorrel gelding Hey Whiskey (sired by Paddys Irish Whiskey and out of Hey Doll Baby by Juno Dat Cash). All of the colts were born in 2008.
The different breedings seemed to come out in the horse’s very different personalities. Parelli’s sensitive sorrel looked like an easy pick at first, but a defiant streak lurked just below the surface and was reticent of anything above him on his right hand side, and he bucked the trainer off during an early round of competition. Anderson’s chestnut, on the other hand, was fractious and reactive from the beginning. His explosive attitude was shown by way of an occasional bucking-bronc-worthy kick as he was being worked under saddle.
Cox’s gray stood out from the crowd as being sensitive and insecure. The horse seemed to be looking for leadership, which allowed Cox to play the role of confidence builder—a job the trainer took very seriously.
“This is the first contact these colts have had with people,” Cox said during the competition. “It’s very important to me if someone buys him or if he goes home to the 6666 Ranch, I want him to have a future. I’m not going to use him up just to win a competition.”
Indeed, each trainer seemed to take the time needed to get to know their horses in their own unique ways. Although they used different methods to get there, by the time round three rolled around, they had all had good rides on their horses, and there was no clear leader.
The final round, however, required the trainers to take their colts through their gaits on the rail of the arena and then complete an obstacle course with such challenges as weaving in and out of poles, walking over a tarp, jumping low rails and dragging a log by a rope.
Anderson drew the honor of being the first to go. His sorrel stayed true to form and didn’t make it easy for him. The gelding bucked a bit during rail work and refused to walk over the tarp, but in signature style, the Aussie trainer ended on a good note. Once finished with the required obstacles, Anderson took off his horse’s bridle off and rode him in a no-holds barred freestyle at a gallop around the arena to a standing ovation from the crowd.
“He’s a very reactive horse,” Anderson said of his 3-year-old colt, “but overall I think he is a good horse. He’s going to make a good horse for somebody. He may be challenging at times, but sometimes the best ones are.”
Cox was the second trainer to make his ride during the final round. A glitch in his hands-free microphone threatened to complicate his chances before he’d even set foot on the horse, but the technical crew replaced his headset quickly, and he went on to a successful ride on his grey gelding.
The cowboy from Mineral Wells, TX easily took his horse from a walk to a lope in each direction and made it through every obstacle in the course. He even chose to dally his rope during the log-dragging portion of the event even though it wasn’t required.
“I’m going to dally because I’m a cowboy,” he told the audience. “Cowboys can still be horseman.”
The energy in the arena built during Cox’s routine, and by the time his “theme” song, “I am Just a Cowboy,” was played during the freestyle portion of his turn, the audience was on its feet.
Cox then stood on the back of his horse in what has become the signature maneuver of the famed event, jumped off his horse and made a victory lap on foot, high-fiving fans. His gelding waited patiently, showing the connection that Cox had desired. Cox then removed the horse’s saddle and led him from the arena.
Finally, it was Pat Parelli’s turn. Parelli began his routine by announcing that he and his wife, Linda, had purchased the colt he was working with from the 6666 earlier in the day.
“When I started this project, I thought about the cowboy who would be messing with him,” he said of the horse, “not thinking it would be me.”
Parelli was slow, light and deliberate while building a relationship with his new colt. Before he got in the saddle, he pointed out that he would be using a hackamore for head control instead of a bit. The decision seemed to sit well with the sorrel, who carried Parelli quietly through the rail work and through each obstacle on the course. The pair culminated their weekend together with several celebratory cantering laps around the arena before stopping and asking for a prop – a large green ball. Parelli bounced the 4-foot diameter ball 10 feet above the horse’s head on it’s sensitive right side while the colt stood calmly. They exited the arena to a standing ovation and the strains of “Troubadour,” by George Strait.
As it had been in the first rounds, there was no clear-cut favorite to win after the final round was completed. When the suspense was finally broken, there was a cheer from the audience as presenting sponsor Western Horseman publisher Darrell Dodds announced that the most points had been awarded to Chris Cox.
Cox received a $10,000 winner’s check, a custom-made Martin Saddle, a giclee by artist Susan Edison, spurs by bit maker Daryl Davis and Road to the Horse Legends World Champion gold and sterling silver Gist Silversmiths belt buckle from Road to the Horse founder/producer Tootie Bland.
“It feels pretty good,” Cox said of the win. “I feel honored to be here and go up against these great horsemen.
“What I really appreciated was that the horse connected with me and that means more to me than the win.”
AQHA, the official remuda sponsor, presented the Traveler Award to the esteemed 6666 Ranch to honor them for breeding Cox’s colt, Perfect Performance. The award is named for the AQHA foundation sire who was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 1994.
The sheer talent of the trainers and quality of the 6666s horses made Road to the Horse 2011 a special experience for all involved. Judge Jack Brainard seemed to speak for everyone when he called the event “impressive”.
“One of the things about it, no one knew who was going to win it until the last hour,” Brainard said, “which made it more interesting, more thrilling for the crowd. It was just fantastic. Fantastic trainers, fantastic horses. I really enjoyed it.”