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“A Summer's Awakening” — Episode 6

by Barbara H. Callihan

Yay! It was the third and final day of the IMTCA clinic! I mounted Chunky Monkey with great excitement and headed for our warm-up. The quiet ride to the arena allowed my mind to reflect on the previous four days which were filled with instruction, observations, awareness, learning and new friendships. Most importantly I was able to recall the intimate and subtle changes that I had begun to experience with Chunky, further enhancing our partnership in this exciting and challenging discipline — International (Extreme) Mountain Trail Challenge.

As I enter the main arena, which has been proffessional groomed by Mark Bolender, I am eager for Chunky’s hoof prints to be the first as we start our softening exercises. As on previous mornings, my warm up heightens my senses and my mind reviews the challenges and victories of previous two days’ instructions.

Eventually the other eight participants and their horses arrived. Everyone exchanged morning greetings, made last minute tack adjustments, and began to reflect on the philosophy, techniques, critiques, and interactions of the previous two days.

On the first day we started the morning with a meet and greet. In the afternoon horses and handlers met in the covered arena where Mark began to introduce his basic philosophies; embracing leadership and protecting our personal space. As participants gained the respect of their horses, Mark then coached us to have our horses follow the basic requests of stopping, backing, side passing, and turning while maintaining our personal space by developing body language and blocking energy. We then used these new leadership skills to move our horses willingly through a plastic draped car wash. We led our horses at the walk, at the trot, around, over and through individual tarps finishing with each horse’s entire back and rump being draped with a tarp. This was a great confidence building exercise for participants and horses.

On the second day we were introduced to the trail obstacles in Bolender Horse park with horses in hand.The importance of the previous days’ lessons became clear very quickly. We were asked to work multiple obstacles to encourage us to maintain and hone our leadership skills. The importance of maintaining my personal space ‘without moving my feet’ became evident and a very personal challenge.

Mark arrives this morning the 3rd day riding Checkers, his 3X IMTCA National Champion horse, without a bridle. As the clinic progressed through the day I could feel the intensity building inside me. Several times during the day—and during the days that followed—Mark called me “Grasshopper” as he would critique and coach my work with Chunky. During our work together I was able to take away important insights: relax-slow down; this takes time and repetition, and we have the time; be aware of Chunky’s tries; I see your drive; and I am here for you.

I filled every moment with learning possibilities, especially when Mark was working with other participants or negotiating the trail obstacles with Checkers. He consistently demonstrated and coached his winning philosophy, training, and competitive methods. His coaching style was relaxed and yet full of specific information and examples. And his well-placed humor and encouragement created moments of levity that eased our minds during challenging moments, giving us space to continue to try until we were successful. I am forever thankful for his distinctive coaching skills that left the entire group of participants beaming with confidence and success.

By the end of the clinic I was flooded with personal awareness about new possibilities for my own horsemanship journey, as well as Chunky’s outstanding talent and willing attitude. This experience was truly having a profound impact on my riding, training, and coaching techniques—what I did not yet know was how deep, personal, and enduring it would be on my inner and outer life.

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