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Road to the Horse ranks among the premier colt-starting events on the planet, its world-class cowboys revered for their near-magical horsemanship skills. So small wonder that back in 2005, a fan commented to RTTH owner/producer Tootie Bland that “women should have their own event.”
A nice sentiment, perhaps. But after Stacy Westfall became the RTTH Champion the following year—besting such prominent horsemen as Martin Black, Craig Cameron, and Van Hargis—well, in retrospect, it sounds a bit like the Pentagon decreeing that female USAF fighter jocks should fly in their own Air Force.
Barrier-breaking Westfall, dubbed the First Lady of Road to the Horse, will host the 2017 event, to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington on March 23-26, 2107, alongside veteran RTTH host Matt West. Her role is even more special because this year’s event is branded “Celebration of the Cowgirl.” Not because women need their own event, but to recognize the accomplishments of cowgirls past and present who triumphed over long odds, and to inspire the next generation of horsewomen to strive on with dignity, grace, and determination.
“Stacy and I have walked through a lot of firsts and fires in our lives together, and there is no finer woman than is she to carry us forward once again,” says Bland, whose determination to keep the RTTH event alive is testament to her laser-focused will.
She just as easily could have walked away years ago.
Dooky and Tootie
When a good-lookin’, competent cowboy shows up in Hollywood, it’s no surprise he found work, and that’s just what happened to Steven “Dooky” Bland, a PRCA cowboy and actor/stuntman/wrangler with credits in such films as The Alamo, The Three Burials of Mequiades Estrada, Secondhand Lions, American Outlaws, and numerous others. Nor was it a surprise that he caught the eye of a leggy blonde stuntwoman and producer, Tootie Bailey, who had attended college on a rodeo scholarship and was an accomplished horsewoman in her own right. He would marry her in 1993, bringing her home to his small West Texas town of Noodle, Texas.
The ranch-raised Tootie Bailey-Bland quickly chucked her L.A.-high heels and pulled on her boots. When she and Steven attended the 2003 El Camino del Caballo Challenge at the Fort Worth Cowboy Coliseum, a vision came to them both: Create an annual event that showcased how a relationship with a horse built on a foundation of trust allows nearly anything to be accomplished. They launched Road to the Horse that year.
In 2005, Steven died in a tragic accident while working on a movie set in Alpine, Texas. Instead of withdrawing, Bland absorbed Steven’s fire to fuel her own, redoubling her efforts to improve Road to the Horse and to make a better world for horses. The annual event now draws close to 10,000 spectators—who attend not only to be entertained, but with the overarching goal of learning better ways to communicate with their own horses.
Road to the Horse
“No matter how many words the dictionary holds, I will never be able to describe Road to the Horse,” Bland tells me. “It’s the best gift in the world to see what’s possible with these horses. Everyone should see it once. And although we try each year to make it bigger and better, the basic tenets remain the same.”
For the past 11 years, the remuda for the event has come from the Four Sixes Ranch in Guthrie, Texas. Glenn Blodgett, DVM, who has been with the Four Sixes for 35 years and runs the legendary ranch’s American Quarter Horse breeding and horse-care operations, shares the process he uses to select the remuda.
“I’ll hold back about 30 two-year-olds for the coming year,” says Blodgett. “I look for a variety of sires and colors, but primarily, I look for the top conformation of what we are striving to produce for the ranch: the world’s best ranch horse. These geldings have been untouched since they were weanlings, and allowed to roam in a herd, where they learn to fend for themselves—jumping brush, traversing arroyos, living in the elements.
“We round them up and trailer about 20 of them nonstop to Kentucky,” he continues. “They still have their ‘work clothes’ on … burrs in the tail, ungroomed, not touched by so much as a currycomb; they are truly unstarted. This year’s crop is one of the most evenly matched remudas we’ve sent. I am proud to put them on display at the Horse Park for an audience of people that the Four Sixes doesn’t normally reach, and am always so amazed when I study the crowd and see how educated they are on the language of the horses.”
Once the clinicians each select their horse from the remuda, the horse/clinician team is assigned to a round pen. Tammy Sronce, RTTH director of operations, explains how the event unfolds. “Each clinician gets two one-hour-and-45-minute sessions with a mandatory 15-minute rest period for the horse, one on Friday and the other on Saturday,” she says. “This is the only interaction the clinician is allowed with the horse before the obstacle course and final judging on Sunday.”
Sronce continues, “The level of horsemanship has also increased unbelievably over the years; it never ceases to amaze me how much the clinicians can accomplish in such a short time. Plus, this year’s contestants come from varied backgrounds and various disciplines.”
“My brothers started colts at the Four Sixes,” Kate Neubert tells me, “so I’ve heard about the quality of their horses firsthand, even though I’ve never been there.” The daughter of horseman Bryan Neubert, she immersed herself in roping, riding, and starting horses at an early age. “Horses have always been central to my life,” she says, “and I could never imagine a life without them.” Neubert, who won the 2012 PCCHA Intermediate Open Futurity and took two horses to the semifinals at the 2014 NCHA Futurity, believes she can use the hubbub of the thousands of spectators to her advantage in the competition, saying “I want to become that one thing that makes the horse feel secure and comfortable in a world of foreign stimuli.” Neubert works as a trainer for Morgan Cromer Cutting Horses in Templeton, California.
The puissance wall, at seven feet or more, can daunt even the most intrepid of show jumpers. Vicki Wilson of Northland, New Zealand, takes it in stride … bareback, even. The eldest of the three show-jumping Wilson sisters has competed in show-jumping events throughout Europe. Along with sisters Kelly and Amanda, she also leads an effort to prevent the slaughter of New Zealand’s wild Kaimanawa horses by rescuing and rehoming them. “They just shut down after the muster (helicopter roundup),” says Wilson. “So we give them their freedom back when we ride them by taking them to the beach and to the river, to let them restore their spirits.” Through the efforts of the Wilson sisters, the slaughter rate has been reduced to zero in just two years. Wilson has won New Zealand’s Nationwide Cup nine times and the Lowry Medallion five times—more than any other rider in Kiwi history.
Texan Sarah Winters Dawson is no stranger to RTTH: Her father Richard Winters, won the event in 2009, and she herself competed in 2013. Along with husband Chris, she runs Dawson Performance Horses in Aubrey, Texas, specializing in reined cow horses. “We work about 50 horses a day, week in/week out,” she says. “I love what I do and work really hard at it: That pretty much sums me up.” She was the 2015 Snaffle Bit Futurity Limited Open Champion and has earned two NRCHA World Championships. A multi-disciplinary equestrian, Dawson also competes as a three-day eventer. She’ll evaluate the Four Sixes remuda with an open mindset: “Not knowing how I’ll place in the draw, I’ll probably first identify four or five I could live with,” she says.
Rachelle Valentine grew up in Michigan, where a two-year old filly, Gypsy, would forever change her life. After high school, she interned with Clinton Anderson before joining the staff of Aussie colt-starting phenomenon Deon Locke. Trading in snowshoes for flip-flops, Valentine currently works with Sean Patrick, two-time Road to the Horse competitor at his Pioneer Trail Reserve in New Smyrna, Florida. With Patrick’s encouragement, she submitted four videos of her colt-starting prowess—each involving just 45 minutes to an hour with an unstarted horse—to jumpstart her application process. “I will be looking for that brave and bold one in the remuda,” she says. “It might be more challenging for me for the first couple of days, but for the final obstacle course, I can use his ego and boldness to my advantage.” But she has even a greater goal: “I hope that all of us competitors provide a ton of inspiration to the younger girls who attend this year’s Road to the Horse,” she says, “ so that they are motivated to increase their horsemanship skills.”
As for this writer, I’m originally from the Lexington, Kentucky area, so have been drenched in its vibrant horse culture my entire life. I’ve attended the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, countless races and sales at Lexington’s Keeneland track, trained cow horses, Tennessee Walkers, Saddlebreds, Standardbreds, and Thoroughbreds. One of my granddaddy’s friends was Secretariat’s personal groom when the great stallion stood at stud at Claiborne Farm, and I was secretly ushered into his stall to play for hours at a time. When the Kentucky Horse Park opened in 1978, I was there, rapt: This was my Disneyland, my Valhalla: I’ve spent enough days there to nearly fill a year’s calendar, including a full month at the 2010 World Equestrian Games.
Still, Road to the Horse is something unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ll be there again in 2017. Part entertainment, and part education, Road to the Horse undoubtedly is one-hundred percent pure-dee spectacle and joy.
Even Dr. Blodgett himself, the leathery, business-like West Texas veterinarian—who has scrupulously bred and cared for many thousands of Four Sixes quarter horses over nearly four decades,—concurs that for him, Road to the Horse is rather like sending a gang of unruly teenaged boys off to college, and then seeing three or four of them graduate with doctorate degrees just three days later.
“It’s a special, special event,” he says, “to see them go through this whole program in just a couple days, and then perform in the obstacle course on Sunday. When Tootie and I are walking around seeing them do the things they do, it’s really, really …” The well-seasoned West Texas vet pauses, voice choked with emotion, “ … overwhelming.”
“I once asked a fan ‘who are you rooting for?’” says Bland, “and the fan replied, ‘I like the clinicians okay, but I’m here to root for the horse.’ ”
That pretty much says it all.
Road to the Horse March 23-26, 2017 The Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park Lexington, Kentucky roadtothehorse.com
Photography by Steve Thornton