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That Winning Feeling!

That Winning Feeling!

By Betsy Kelleher

     I’m borrowing Jane Savoie’s book title, because that’s exactly how I felt when Lady and I completed our first ACTHA ride on October 15th! ACTHA is the American Competitive Trail Horse Association, and their Competitive Trail Challenges are growing news these days—six mile rides with six obstacles, each one rated by a judge. 

     The six specific obstacles are not revealed until the pre-ride meeting, but there is a list of possible obstacles on the ACTHA website. I checked them out and decided that Lady should learn to “drag,” in case that was on the agenda. I worked with her several times, first dragging a rope, then a hunk of wood, then one day I walked beside her while dragging an empty muck bucket. I was slightly amazed at how quickly she learned this new skill! But I never thought to practice dragging a BODY!

     Yes, one of the ride obstacles turned out to be dragging a body—a SCARECROW, of all things! Of course it fit perfectly into the fall theme. I wondered how Lady would handle a scarecrow dragging behind her!

     Saturday’s ride began cool and windy, but a beautiful day with highs in the low 70’s. Triangle H Farm had the whole event well planned and well managed. After registration, the ride meeting and other preparations, I mounted Lady and off we went in the second group out, accompanied by safety riders. My friend Dawn rode Rocky, my Spotted Saddle Horse. As our group got acquainted, I realized most of us rode gaited horses! We rode about a mile between each obstacle, on fields and through woods, and it was an enjoyable fall ride even without the obstacle competition.

     The dragging obstacle was third on the schedule. As we approached, I still wondered how Lady would respond. The scarecrow lay on the ground like a big rag doll beside the first barrel. Lady would have to walk beside it as I picked up the attached rope coiled on top of the barrel. She looked at it without backing off, and I took the end of the rope and asked her to go forward. She was good all the way. Reaching the last barrel, I realized I had to pull the body closer to gather up the rope end so it would stay on top of the barrel. Lady stood still as the scarecrow crept closer. With great relief, I crossed the obstacle finish line in 35 seconds (one minute limit). The judge gave both Lady and I a perfect 10 (posted online after the ride).

     Later, we came to a large blue tarp, held down with a dozen big orange pumpkins. We were asked to walk across the tarp without disturbing the pumpkins dotted here and there upon it. Lady has no problem with tarps, but I suddenly realized how windy it was! The tarp edges were rolling up, and the center was billowing around the pumpkins!

     Our turn came, and Lady looked down and cautiously stepped onto the edge of the tarp. She walked carefully around the pumpkins as the tarp billowed up around her ankles. She did not stop or back up and we crossed the tarp without hurrying. I was so proud, I certainly would have given her a 10! The judge gave each of us an 8. What did we do wrong? The judge’s comment read, “two hands with curb bit.” Was I supposed to ride with one hand? I’ve always ridden with two hands in gaited horse shows, with the same long-shanked bit! Next time, I will verify this point beforehand! Lady did so good, and my ignorance messed it up!

     I was disappointed in the scores at first. Lady’s total was 50 out of a possible 60, and my total was 51. I think we always hope to win when we compete, even though we don’t let on—right? But we need to learn what it takes. I would have given Lady higher scores, but I was focused on one thing. I’ve seen her headstrong reactive side, her quickness to whirl, her refusal to load. Looking back on Saturday’s ride, I saw a different mare. She seemed to think about everything she was asked to do, and her response was calm, willing and positive! 

     After the ride, I had to try Lady on one more thing—the noodles! Anyone who has attended Triangle H events is familiar with the tall frame dangling a row of colorful plastic tubes. The wind that day held them out at a 45 degree angle, and I decided to ride from the side the wind came from. I let Lady look as we walked past one side of the frame, and then turned her in toward the hanging noodles. She slowly walked to where she could touch them with her nose. I was ready for her to jump back, but she stood there, just touching, looking. I asked her to walk on through, and she did.

     Lady totally amazed me.

     Arriving back at the barn, I unloaded Lady first. She has ALWAYS rushed out in spite of my efforts. But this time as she started to back, I put my hand on her rump and said whoa. She actually waited until I pulled on her tail and asked her to back one step. Which she did! I immediately put my hand on her again, saying whoa. She stopped. This was a First! I had been asking her to back one step at a time on the ground and from the saddle, hoping she would one day associate that exercise with trailer unloading. She backed out the rest of the way at a reasonable speed. I was ecstatically speechless!

     The whole day was amazing—the scarecrow, the tarp, the noodles and the unloading. I was reminded of something from Clinton Anderson, about teaching a horse to use the thinking side of the brain instead of the reactive side. Had my pre-ride training somehow done that? The time I spent working with a rope, dragging a hunk of wood, dragging an empty muck bucket, sacking with empty milk jugs—it turned out to be more than getting ready for an obstacle course. Somewhere, somehow, it seemed to increase Lady’s confidence in herself and in my leadership.

     At the end of the day, I felt like we had WON! I was so delighted that Lady didn’t refuse or spook at anything, scores didn’t matter! Whatever the discipline, however, there must be rules and guidelines—criteria by which participants are judged. We learn to go by the rules in order to win.

     I may think I am doing good in life by my own standards, but Someone greater than me established the principles of living. Our Creator is fair and generous. He does not judge by financial status, intellectual ability, color or race. To give everyone equal opportunity, He opens His Kingdom to anyone with simple childlike faith. He rewards those who seek Him. Ephesians 2:8 declares, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” No matter how one’s past is marred, He offers a new beginning. Whoever believes, may come.

(Originally published in the November 2011 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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