They call it Natural Horsemanship – as if jumping on the back of a fast, powerful, thousand-pound prey animal genetically driven to do everything in its power to throw you off can ever be called “natural.”

But trainers worldwide are doing it every day; developing rapport and communicating with the horse at the level of its true nature.  And most importantly, forgoing the harsh and abusive training methods of the past, allowing the horse to feel safe and secure in the presence of humans.

We’ve all seen the Westerns where a cowboy would hop on the back of a wild mustang and ride the bucking monster into submission.  When you had to “break” a half-dozen horses each day, this process was more necessity than preference.  Getting thrown, bitten, stomped and kicked was a tough, and sometime fatal way to make a living.  It wasn’t much fun for the horse either.

Although gentler techniques have existed for thousands of years, the popularity of Natural Horsemanship began to soar in the 1980s, thanks to pioneering work done by Natural Horsemanship icons like Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman.  These men demonstrated to large groups of equine enthusiasts that Natural Horsemanship was not magic, but rather a process that could be taught and mastered.  They showed horse owners how to create a safe and rewarding bond with their horse.

As Natural Horsemanship techniques evolved, the clinician’s speed and efficiency increased.  Demonstrations of “colt starting” – where a trainer took a horse that’s never been under saddle and turned it into a safe, calm, responsive mount – took no longer than a weekend or even a single day.  Soon, there were colt starting competitions, where trainers would work side-by-side demonstrating their techniques and skill in Natural Horsemanship, vying for the top prize.

While colt starting competitions are becoming common worldwide, it’s being brought to a new level by an organization in South Central Virginia.  The SouthEastern Farriers and Horseowners Association (SEFHA) will be hosting their third annual Colt Starting Challenge on October 19, 2013 in Chatham, Va.

The SEFHA Colt Starting Challenge features renowned local trainers and expert judges, all committed to a kinder, gentler way of working with horses.  But unlike other events of its kind, this challenge will feature three husband/wife teams, each taking a young, never-been-under-saddle horse from zero to you-won’t-believe-it in only a few hours.

SEFHA president David Tuggle said the husband/wife teams will highlight what America is all about: family.

“We will witness team work as it should be.  Total support for each other’s strengths and weaknesses, complementing each other with their skill and knowledge of Natural Horsemanship,” said Tuggle.

Five green horses from Virginia Hancock Horses (an AQHA breeder of Joe Hancock and Blue Valentine lineage horses located in the heart of Virginia) will be in the competition remuda (a term used to describe the herd from which ranch hands would select their mounts).  A horse will be randomly selected for each husband/wife team.  In far less than an average work day, these teams will build a partnership with their unbroken horse, allowing horse and rider to work together in a safe, calm manner.

At the end of the competition, each team will take its horse through an obstacle course offering challenges that can spook even veteran trail horses.

Leisha and Brock Griffith

Leisha and Brock Griffith

This year’s Colt Starting Challenge will feature last year’s winner, Brock Griffith, and his wife Leisha, both of Brock Griffith Horsemanship located in Denton, North Carolina.  Brock is a former bull rider who immersed himself in the art of Natural Horsemanship.  Among Brock’s many accomplishments, he won competitions at the 2008 North Carolina Equine Extravaganza Trainer’s Challenge and the 2009 Virginia Equine Extravaganza.

Leisha is also an accomplished horsewoman, with a long history in ranching and rodeo.  In 2010 she won the first All-Women’s Trainer Challenge at the Virginia Equine Extravaganza and competed in the 2011 Extreme Mustang Makeover in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Brock and Leisha’s techniques are similar, although Leisha said she’s a little softer.  Brock said Leisha definitely has a unique way with animals.  With Brock’s bull riding experience, you might think he’s always fighting the urge to jump on the colt and wear him down, but Brock doesn’t think that way.

“You cannot dominate a colt like a bull,” he said.  “Besides, I’m too old!”

Brock and Leisha have a keen sense of humor.  When asked if there was a downside to a husband/wife team, Brock jokingly replied, “Divorce?”

“Yes, we start colts at home together every day, from the first ride to finishing horses and we still haven’t killed each other,” Leisha adds.  She goes on to confirm that she wears the chaps in the family.  “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” she said.

All kidding aside, Team Griffith may have an edge.

“I am very excited,” Brock said.  “My wife and I work together every day and I look forward to showing people what a good team we are.”

James and Kate Cooler of Cooler Horsemanship are also competing this year.  Cooler Horsemanship, based in Reidsville, N.C., was originally founded years ago with James and his parents.  James said his father, Don Cooler, an emergency room doctor with a passion for horses, served as his inspiration, teacher and mentor.

Cooler Horsemanship became inactive when James went to college in 1998.  But after the untimely death of his father in 2004, James’s passion for Natural Horsemanship was rekindled.  Soon thereafter, James met Kate and in 2008 he proposed to her while on horseback during a musical horsemanship show.

James and Kate have become an inseparable team, merging James’s western style with Kate’s dressage background, which they say adds elegance and grace to the final product.

“It’s a humbling and rewarding experience that we wouldn’t trade for anything,” James said on his website.

It seems to be working.  James will be a wild card contestant at the Road to the Horse competition in Lexington, Kentucky next March.  The Road to the Horse is an internationally renowned competition that has featured world-class Natural Horsemanship practitioners like Pat Parelli, Stacy Westfall, Clinton Anderson and three-time winner Chris Cox.


Bobby and Shala Knight

The third team in the Colt Starting Challenge is West Virginia native Bobby Knight and his wife Shala.  Bobby was introduced to horses by his grandpa, Delbert Parker and has been training for over 15 years.

“I realized I could get more from my horse by asking, and not demanding,” Bobby said on his website.  “The connection between horse and human can never be explained.  It must be experienced.”

On paper, Team Knight might look like the underdog, but training horses isn’t done on paper.

This year’s four judges are an impressive lot in their own right.  Katie Angis has a degree in Equine Science and has been working with horses professionally for over 10 years.

Sue Garis has been involved with horses all her life.  Although Garis has a degree in accounting from Penn State, she left her career in banking to realize her lifelong dream and became a certified BWFA farrier.

Charlie Minter is a Paso Fino breeder and trainer.  He’s worked as a farrier and has been a licensed Paso Fino judge for 25 years.

Virginia (Ginger) Henderson is the assistant professor and chair of the equestrian department at Averett University.

Morgan Harris was a competitor in last year’s Colt Starting Challenge.  She returns to co-host this year with SEFHA president David Tuggle.

In addition to the action in the training rings, the SEFHA Colt Starting Challenge also offers silent auctions, food, vendors and give-aways.  It’s a great family environment, tickets are only $15 and you won’t meet a nicer bunch of people.

“If you’ve never seen a young horse started under saddle, if you’ve never watched Natural Horsemanship, you will see the cream of the crop at our competition and you will see some amazing things,” said Tuggle.

For more information or to buy tickets, go to