Journal on the Road

Project Cowboy, Day 1

October 8, 2010

You can teach an old horse to trust.

"Sir Avery" and Edwin "E." Gaffney of Colorado.

I’m covering the first-ever Project Cowboy in Fort Worth, Texas, where 160 men and women of all ages on horses of all ages, shapes and sizes are competing to be the next “big-star” horse trainer.

Here at Project Cowboy, each contestant participated in three rounds of competition on Day 1: Round 1 was “Horsemanship 101,” in which the contestant had to pick up his horse’s feet, mount his horse from the right side, lead the horse and perform other fundamental activities; Round 2 was “Good in the Saddle,” in which each contestant was required to do a reining pattern that consisted of loping circles, lead changes, spins and stops; and Round 3 – and most contestants said this was the hardest – was “Good on Screen,” in which each contestant had to do an on-camera screen test by introducing their mock TV show, giving horsemanship tips and answering questions.

Of course, there are quite a few AQHA members in the competition, one of whom is Edwin “E.” Gaffney, an American Quarter Horse Youth Association director and exhibitor from Colorado.

E. is a well-spoken, intelligent, funny and respectful young man, who loves AQHA and American Quarter Horses. He’s an over-achiever, and I mean that in the most respectful and admiring way possible. My co-workers and I are big fans of E.’s. Having heard him speak on several occasions, I think he’s got a bright future in politics or public relations; he’s just that good at thinking on his toes.

Unfortunately, because I was photographing other contestants, I missed E.’s two performances today. E.’s dad told me that E. did a great job on his screen test (no surprise, there). So after E. competed in the riding portion of the competition, I was a little surprised to find him and his horse, “Sir Avery,” in the warm-up pen and not back at their stall or in the wash racks.

After making a round or two in the pen horseback, E. got off the horse, hugged the horse’s head and spoke quietly to him. Then, with several other horses and riders in the same pen, E. left the gelding standing alone and walked off about 20 feet to get the horse’s halter, which was hanging on a panel. Then, he got the gelding’s attention and the two headed out of the pen together.

As they approached the gate, I asked E. how his run had gone.

Looking miserable, even embarrassed, he said, “Not so good.” He hung his head, hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans and started rearranging the dirt on the ground with the toe of his boot.

He explained that their maneuvers just weren’t what he would have liked them to be, and that the horse got scared and ran off when E. dismounted and started cracking a bullwhip at the end of their performance (all of the contestants were encouraged to add a little “somethin’-somethin’ ” to impress the judges).

E. felt like he’d let everyone down.

What he needed was a little perspective, which I think he got as he told me the full story behind his horse.

Sir Avery is 11 years old. He had 30 days of training when he was 2, and then he was turned out to pasture with his dam for nine years. Nine years! When he was finally taken away from his mother, the gelding adopted a bad mood and stayed there, managing to injure several people, including breaking one rider’s ribs. No one could do anything with the horse. “He was headed to France for dinner,” E. said, shaking his head.

Earlier this year, Sir Avery and his bad mood came to live with E., where he bit E.’s sister, pawed at another one of E.’s siblings and tried to attack E.’s little brother. But E. spent time with the gelding, building trust and hoping the hate would go away.

They’ve only had five months together.

“We didn’t get to lead changes and loping circles,” E. said, sounding like he was apologizing for the lack of polish in the horse’s training. “I was just trying to get him to where he didn’t hate me.

“I don’t know why God gave me this horse,” he added with a sigh.

That’s when the momma in me started talking.

“E., maybe God gave you this horse to teach you patience and perseverance,” I said.

As E. raised his head and looked me in the eye, I suggested that maybe he wasn’t meant to go into that arena to win based on fancy flying lead changes, spins and stops. What he scored points on was less visible, and those points weren’t with the judges, but with his horse. He proved that he had built a trusting relationship with a horse, who for whatever reason didn’t trust humans.

I was also proud to notice that the horseman in E. didn’t let his time with Sir Avery today end on a bad note. As I mentioned earlier, I found the pair in the warm-up pen. That’s because after their performance, E. quietly collected the gelding and walked him back to the warm-up pen to go back to the basics and reinforce the foundation of their relationship … and end their day on a good note.

Day 2 will begin with the nail-biting first elimination: the 160 contestants will be cut back to 75. Then, we’ll get to see how well those 75 “Think on 4 Feet.”