The Colt Starting Challenge USA wrapped up two days of competition in Durango on Saturday in the La Plata County Fairgrounds covered arena.
In the competition, four young horses – which have had little, if any, contact with humans – were introduced to a different kind of trainer – those with a knack for gaining the trust and confidence of the animal while eschewing the traditional methods and implements. Instead of spirit-breaking rodeo cowboys, these are the real horse whisperers – people with a quiet, natural ability to communicate with young, nervous animals.
It’s called natural horsemanship. Trainers are judged on their ability to make progress with the horses. Twenty competitions will lead eight finalists to Las Vegas for the title.
Cristy Beatty, who founded the event with her husband, Russell, said it is an astonishing display.
“The audience is amazed at what they see,” she said.
Two-time event winner Victor Sundquist of Olathe called it training with simple, natural instincts.
“We don’t use spurs, twitches or hobbles,” he said in a press release about the event. “What we do is through natural horsemanship training. We use a horse’s natural instincts and communication. The horse wants to do it because of you.”
At 20, Sundquist’s success is a testimony of natural talent – an ability to understand and influence. There is no abuse, like a gouge to the rib cage.
On Friday, Rhett Fincher of Pagosa Springs whistled to help calm his gelding, Ollie, an anxious quarter horse from Mancos. Watching in near disbelief, Chris and Polly Kloster and their daughter Emily, Ollie’s owners, were moved by the gentle approach Fincher applied, transforming an unpredictable, sketchy beast to a still animal at ease.
“If you’ve got their trust and respect, there’s a lot better chance that they’re going to love you,” Fincher said. “If I understand what he’s thinking about, there’s a lot better chance that I can influence him to follow me.”
Colt Starting Challenge USA judge Mike Majors of Texas said trainers are evaluated on their comfort and ease around the horses they are working with.
“This isn’t the old-school style of breaking horses, where cowboys would saddle a young horse and ride it bucking and kicking in order to teach the animal to work,” he said in the release. “Natural horsemanship allows the opportunity to understand its surroundings while gaining confidence.”
The competition, in its third year, has grown across the West in popularity, and event organizers are excited about the December finale in Las Vegas, thoughtfully timed in conjunction with the Las Vegas Pro Rodeo.
“We’re just trying to promote it and local trainers,” Beatty said.
Of the four contestants in Durango, two were from Colorado.
Bo Gardner, vice president of corporate marketing for Las Vegas Events, said it will boost exposure for a little-known method of colt starting. Last year, 196,000 spectators attended the Vegas rodeo.
Majors also said the competitions reveal insight into other ways – gentle ways – of training horses.
“It will give a lot of people some recognition they would have never gotten before on their ability to start colts,” Majors said. “It gives the public some more awareness of other methods. I think that’s what everybody is looking for – how to do this without getting killed.”
On Saturday, Fincher slowly moved around Ollie, calmly and quietly whistling, tightening the saddle and showing a nonchalant disposition.
“I told my wife I didn’t think they could saddle this horse in two days,” Chris Kloster said while Fincher worked with her. “He did it in less than an hour. I was stunned.”
Polly Kloster called it magic.
“To watch them connect was amazing,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”