Competitors will try to take green horses from round pen to rideable in a single day at the Colt Starting Challenge, returning Sept. 30 – Oct. 1, 2016.

Above: Returning champ Alicia Postreich McClelland takes a cautious ride at the 2015 Colt Starting Challenge. Above Right: Ben Wallace of Arrowhead Horsemanship in Charlestown, R.I. bonds with his equine partner at the 2015 Colt Starting Challenge. Photos by Leslie Keck of SEFHA

Above: Returning champ Alicia Postreich McClelland takes a cautious ride at the 2015 Colt Starting Challenge. Top of page: Ben Wallace of Arrowhead Horsemanship in Charlestown, R.I. bonds with his equine partner at the 2015 Colt Starting Challenge. Photos by Leslie Keck of SEFHA

Written by Mary Beth Jackson

The Colt Starting Challenge is the year’s premier event for the SouthEastern Farriers and Horseowners Association (SEFHA), a Southside Virginia group uniting farriers, horse owners, and veterinarians to further the knowledge and enjoyment of horses. Members encompass all breeds and disciplines, with a common denominator of promoting natural horsemanship.

“No rodeo,” says Southside farrier and SEFHA President David Tuggle, referring to the “buck it out” way of breaking horses.

The event is held every year at the Old Dominion Agricultural Complex in Chatham, Virginia.

Competing trainers will be T.J. Clibborn of Deerfield, Wisconsin; Amelia Eflund of A&D Performance Horses in Stem, North Carolina; and Michael Gascon of Gascon Horsemanship Academy in Poplarville, Mississippi.

Joey Burnett of Straight Arrow Paso Finos in Walnut Cove, North Carolina has been chosen as an alternate.

Judges will be Randall Wiseman of Grenadier Equine in Danville; Virginia Henderson, chair of the equestrian department at Averett University; 2011 Colt Starting Challenge Champion Randy Abernathy; and Whitney Sewell of Straight Path Horses in Boones Mill. Two-time champ Brock Griffith will emcee.

Trainers will each perform a demonstration Friday night and will meet their equine partners for the first time Saturday morning. Each will prepare their horse to calmly tackle an obstacle course simulating the trail experience.

Trainers are vying for a prize package that includes a monogram trophy saddle from FX Saddlery, a  trophy buckle, 500 pounds of feed from Southern States, a champion wreath, and more.

Bobby Knight of Knight Horsemanship in Jumping Branch, W.V. explains his methods to spectators at the 2015 Colt Starting Challenge. Photo by Leslie Keck of SEFHA

Bobby Knight of Knight Horsemanship in Jumping Branch, W.V. explains his methods to spectators at the 2015 Colt Starting Challenge. Photo by Leslie Keck of SEFHA

This year’s field was chosen from nearly 50 applications by SEFHA’s selection committee. SEFHA limits the pool to East Coast trainers, though some from as far as Texas and Hawaii have applied, says Tuggle. This is the first year a midwesterner has been allowed in the competition. While Clibborn lives in Wisconsin, he frequently works between New York and Florida.

Horsemanship has taken Australian-born Clibborn has all over the world: rodeo riding in his homeland, racing in Japan and training Grand Prix show jumpers in Europe. Since coming to the U.S. in 1990, Clibborn has traversed the country starting colts, giving tours, leading trail rides and doing clinics. He has a special place in his heart for the American Mustang and was reserve champion of the 2012 Extreme Mustang Makeover event in Madison, Wisconsin. He specializes in young and problem horses.

Clibborn says a key part of what makes him unique is his Australian upbringing.

“I think we (Australians) can read a horse, and we grow up riding and breaking horses for a living,” he said. “It’s a strength of our culture.”

Asked what trainers he admires, Clibborn cited his friend and fellow Australian Guy McLean, who performed with his liberty horses at the 2014 Colt Starting Challenge.

“He believes in what I do, and I believe in what he does,” he said.

Eflund, the 2015 alternate, operates A&D Performance Horses out of Tally Ho Farms in Stem, North Carolina.  She says she is a quiet worker, but will explain as much as she can to the audience about what she is doing in the round pen.

“I definitely want them to take something away from it,” she says.

Eflund does not know exactly what her strategy will be until she meets her assigned horse. She says every horse is a unique individual and wants to see what the horse is bringing to her.

“I’m so against the cookie-cutter method of training,” she says. “I’m not going to go in with a plan of how to train this horse before I meet this horse.”

Eflund’s training style is inspired by trainers such as Clinton Anderson, Buck Brannaman and Tom Dorrance. She says she is a humble person who is always willing to learn, and is already curious to see what Clibborn has to offer after reading online about his experiences.

“I really hope I can learn some stuff from him while I’m there,” she says.

Gascon is a fifth-generation horse trainer who grew up showing and competing his family’s Paso Finos.  He runs Gascon Horsemanship Academy from the family’s farm, Horse Haven. Gascon will be performing his “Jurassic Paso Park!” routine for his Friday demo, the video of which went viral in February on YouTube. It is approaching 400,000 views (spoiler: It involves a dinosaur suit). He will be bringing his equine partner Tito, a Paso Fino stallion who played Fandango in the movie “A Fine Step” with actor Luke Perry. They have appeared as “The Mike and Tito Show” at Road to the Horse, the Hoosier Horse Fair and Expo, and the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

He hopes the audience will see how he will communicate with the horse with little or no resistance.  Gascon is unconcerned if his assigned competition partner isn’t a Paso Fino.

“Good horsemanship is good horsemanship,” he says. “It’s as simple as the communication between horse and man.”

The competition employs a variety of horse breeds by design, to show the value in the training philosophy.

“It doesn’t matter what breed of horse it is, natural horsemanship works,” Tuggle says.

However, don’t expect to see any mustangs. With its two-day time frame, the Colt Starting Challenge is not the right format, Tuggle says. In contrast, the Extreme Mustang Makeover gives trainers 100 days to produce a show-ready partner. The weekend Chatham event is not designed for horses fresh from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

“They’re just wild,” he says. “It’s just not fair to the horse or the trainer.”

Instead, halter-broke horses that have not been under pad or saddle are selected for the trainers. Tuggle says this more closely replicates the experience of the average horse owner, who raises a foal until training time or sends a low-mileage acquisition for extra help. And while the weekend is a showcase for what can be accomplished within the methods, it’s just the beginning for these horses.

“When we’re finished are they ‘broke’?” he says. “No, no, no.”

Tickets for the event are $15, and available at the door or in advance at www.sefha.net through PayPal.