And then there was one.
The emotional tax paid by Project Cowboy contestants on Sunday, the third and last day of the competition, was equal to or greater than the physical exertion they and their horses put forth on days 1 and 2.
Sunday started with the drama-rich whittling of the contestants from 25 to the top 10: Doug Mills of Canada, Mike Major of Colorado, Marty Simper of Utah, Byron Hogan of Texas, Adrienne Herron of Canada, Dustin Ellis of Kansas, Laurie Shelton of Texas, Wendy Stephens of Louisiana, Mozaun McKibben of Texas and Ben Baldus of Texas.
Then, the sweat-round – actually called “Meet & Greet” – started. Each of the 10 finalists had to spend 25 minutes in a round pen with an unstarted colt from the Swenson Ranch in Texas. Only three of the 10 contestants actually got their hands on their colts, who were skittish and pretty unhappy about being separated from each other, based on the racket they were making.
The other seven contestants definitely got their colts’ attention, but never got a hand on them. The contestants were also each interviewed during the 25-minute process by emcee Pam Minnick to describe what they were doing with their respective colts.
From the colt-starting round, the top 10 contestants had to ride a horse they didn’t know. For that little exercise, Patti Colbert and Tootie Bland, the event’s coproducers, brought in the Texas Christian University champion equestrian team and its horses – it’s very tall, very English (as opposed to western riding) horses. The contestants drew numbers to determine their go order, then drew numbers a second time to determine which horse they would ride (each horse had a chalk number tattooed on its hip).
Each contestant was required to individually complete rail work (walk, trot, canter and back up) on their TCU horse, then he or she was required to pull the saddle off the horse and ride the horse bareback through a trail course that consisted of a bridge, a crooked pass-through, a pinwheel and a jump. The 10 finalists were sequestered and not allowed to watch their competitors complete this round because there were some stingers in this assignment that only someone who was familiar with English events would know.
One hidden test was connected to the saddle and only a few of the 10 contestants figured it out: when removing a flat or English saddle from a horse, you need to run the stirrups up toward the seat and secure them with the stirrup leathers, and you need to remove the cinch and lay it over the seat of the saddle. What was interesting is that the savvy audience rewarded the contestants who go it right with a round of applause.
Another hidden test was that there is a right and wrong side from which to approach and jump a jump: you approach from the side on which there are props (flowers or, in this case, a colored pole) on the ground in front of the jump, and only a few got that right.
The more obvious obstacles were the bridge, which the TCU horses much preferred to jump than walk across, and the crooked pass-through, which I heard one spectator suggest that you would automatically assume that you were supposed to back through the pass-through rather that walk forward through it.
Each of the 10 contestants finished the course in their allotted time of four minutes. Those who got through it fairly quickly used their remaining time to put their mount through flying lead changes or make a few extra jumps.
After Round 7, Patti and Tootie announced the three finalists: Mike Major, Ben Baldus and Mozaun McKibben. But the other seven contestants from the top 10 weren’t allowed to just walk away. Patti and Tootie swore them and 10 random members of the audience in as official judges for the Final Round: “Ride ’Em Like You Stole ’Em.”
Mike, Ben and Mozaun drew numbers for their go order and then had only a few minutes to get their horses, set up props and don costumes.
Mozaun, riding a Taris Catalyst-bred stallion, did an American-themed routine that included carrying the American flag and getting his horse to load up into an old wooden wagon. Ben and Greyt Socks did a reining freestyle routine and worked a steer (bridlelessly) in the arena.
Mike took the reining and steer-working routine a couple steps further by entering the arena on his bridleless mare, Black Hope Stik. Mike was dressed a little like a cross between Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, complete with upturned white collar, a boutonnière and derby hat. Mike’s hip-hop music got the crowd to clap along with the beat and, eventually, give him a standing ovation.
After Mike was done, there was little left to do.
The awards of a saddle, belt buckle and a check for $10,000 were brought into the arena, along with the AQHA-sponsored trophy for the highest-scoring competitor who owned the American Quarter Horse he or she was riding. And after Tootie presented that trophy to Mike, it was pretty obvious that he was also the winner of the first-ever Project Cowboy competition.
See “The Cream of the Crop” for my interview with Mike.