Journal on the Road

Project Cowboy, Day 2

October 9, 2010

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Edwin "E." Gaffney and "Sir Avery" slay the dragon in the Project Cowboy obstacle course.

Saturday morning at Project Cowboy began with paring the 160 contestants to 75.

Patti Colbert and Tootie Bland, the co-producers of Project Cowboy, played the drama to the hilt by calling 10 exhibitors at a time to the center of the arena, then – after some really pregnant pauses (and with nearly everyone holding their breath), they’d tell the 10 that they were either moving on to Round 4 or that this was “the end of the trail” for them.

When Edwin “E.” Gaffney – the subject of my Day 1 blog, was one of 10 called to the line, I could hardly breathe. Patti and Tootie tiptoed around delivering the group’s fate by telling them how well they’d all done, that they were all great horsemen and -women, and then said, “We’re sorry to tell you … (insert pregnant pause) … that y’all will have to come back in Round 4 and work even harder!”

The crowd went wild.

With my camera trained on E., I saw his reaction go from relief to, quite possibly, disbelief, then he hugged his horse’s neck.

So Round 4 was a trail class. On steroids.

Many AQHA exhibitors are familiar with Tim “the Trail Man” Kimura’s trail designs. Well, after seeing the layout of the Project Cowboy trail course, AQHA Executive Director of Competition and Breed Integrity Tom Persechino texted me, saying, “This ain’t no Tim Kimura trail course!” (Tom, by the way, is one of the Project Cowboy judges this weekend.)

The course was insane: three 55-gallon drums laid end-to-end that each contestant was required to sidepass his or her horse over; a landscaping timber that each contestant had to back their horse over; a scary-looking, horse-eating, lime-green dragon with tires for a body, a 5-inch-diameter piece of hose for a tail and a tiki-totem-pole head that they had to jump; three “curtains” made of Styrofoam noodles and plastic drapes that each horse and rider had to walk through; a walk-through chute and bridge combination; a pinwheel of timbers that they had to trot or lope over; and, finally, a 3-foot-diameter ball on a rope that each horse and rider team had to drag, which didn’t come anywhere close to resembling a steer to even the cowy-est of horses.

Oh, and did I mention that while negotiating the obstacles, the contestants (who had wireless mics) were asked a series of questions by the judges about horse health, tack and training topics? That added a whole ’nother level to the difficulty of Round 4.

Some horses excelled, taking the freaky obstacles in stride, never batting an eye. Other contestants had to admit that they really weren’t sure how their horses would react because this was: A. the first time their horses had been past their property gate, or B. the first time their horses had ever seen a trail course, much less a course made up of some pretty weird-looking obstacles. “We don’t get many dragons on our ranch in New Mexico,” one contestant admitted.

Some contestants talked up a storm – just like real clinicians – from the time they entered the arena to when the buzzer sounded at the end of their four minutes. They were relaxed and at home in front of a crowd.

Brazilian Conrado Stefani, who now lives in Hotchkiss, Colorado, and his horse had time to flawlessly do the obstacle course from front to back and back to front, with a few extra jumps over the dragon thrown in. And all the while, Conrado was smoozing the crowd – OK, the women in the crowd – with his lilting Brazilian accent.

Other contestants, knowing that persuading their horses to jump the dragon could eat up precious time, attempted the other obstacles first, saving the dragon for last.

My buddy E. took it easy on Sir Avery. He told “Avery’s” story to the audience and explained that not pressuring the gelding to do something he wasn’t ready for was more important than pushing the horse to do a maneuver or obstacle, then have to backtrack in their training when they got home. But, by golly, they jumped the dragon! The pair had that much trust in each other.

It was a really long day that was capped by another drama-intensive, edge-of-your-seat elimination: the 75 contestants were cut back to 25. This was getting serious, and it was a serious cut. Unfortunately, E. and Sir Avery didn’t make it this time, but I could tell by the look on E.’s face, that he was OK with how far he and Sir Avery had gotten. He stayed true to himself and, more importantly, to his horse. The duo had slayed the proverbial dragon – and a real dragon, too!

Round 5 was called “Can You Handle the Herd?”

The 25 “survivors” were broken into five teams and were required to do a team-penning exercise, where each team member had to cut a heifer from the herd at one end of the arena and then pen the heifer at the other end of the arena, with the help of his or her teammates.

It was a test of the cowy-ness of each horse and the rider’s ability to guide the horse, as well as everyone’s ability to work and play well with others. And, even though they were competing against each other, they had a ball – each team picked a name, had a strategy and the team members fully supported each other, high-fiving and coaching each other.

So, that’s where we left off at the end of Day 2. The 25 had penned their cattle (with a little arm-chair coaching from the crowd), and the judges were left to tally the results.

We’ll open Day 3 – Sunday and the final day of competition – with another bracing elimination – the 25 will be cut down to 10.

Yes, it’ll be another very serious cut.

Becky Newell

Becky Newell
Editor In Chief, The American Quarter Horse Journal