Horse Training

Checkers Takes the Challenge

Checkers Takes the Challenge
Mark Bolender

The Joy of Demonstrating at the AQHA Show


by Mark Bolender


Photo Credit: too trick

I love the AQHA shows. In July of 2011 I had the privilege of attending the Region 5 event in Langley, British Columbia. I was a demonstrator, clinician, and judge for the sport of Mountain Trail and Trail Trials. Even though it was a long drive from Bolender Horse Park, it was a warm summer day with bright blue skies.

I found the show grounds far more beautiful than I had seen them eleven years ago. Back then my horse Checkers was a yearling and getting ready for a lunge line futurity. Now, he had matured and returned to help me demonstrate a whole new sport.

Bill Cassidy had some obstacles already in place. He was a big help in setting up a huge course using logs, boulders, plants, poles, and lots more. When completed we had a Mountain Trail course that not only looked great, it would challenge any horse at any skill level. I thought, “Checkers likes a challenge, but this time he’s in for a big one!”

During the competition the stands were packed with excited guests and there was standing room only. When Checkers turn came, he was announced with lots of fanfare, but barely noticed any of it. He sensed it was going to be time to focus on what I trained him to do. As the performers faded away, it was just me and Checkers out in the open, and against the obstacles. He didn’t miss a beat and wasn’t distracted by the performers, the audience, or by the unfamiliar, odd-shaped obstacles. Without flinching he dropped his head, inspected the obstacles, and confidently flowed through like wind through the trees.

Did I mention Checkers didn’t have a bridle? For the whole demonstration he was on his own. He looked to me for some guidance, based on the partnership we’d established over the years. You could hear a pin drop in the stands as he performed. When he concluded, there was a thunderous roar and the crowd was on its feet. Sometimes you get the feeling that Checkers is a bit of show off, as though he likes to please crowds, and this time he did it in style.

The next day I gave a clinic to a grand mix of riders. They ranged from teenagers to older adults. Some had a lot of show experience while others were green; half rode english and half western. That is the great appeal of Mountain Trail; any one of any age or background can participate and master it.

I began with a mental exercise where the riders were asked to back up their horse without looking, touching, pulling, or talking to their horse. It’s a very powerful illustration and leads to a partnership with the horse in just minutes. It allows the horse to instinctively trust you for your worthiness as a leader. Each person made progress by realizing that establishing such a leadership role comes from within them. After that, each rider learned how to drive their horse through obstacles, each time letting the horse “think it through.”

As the hours went by, all riders and horses appreciated the difference between forcing and allowing a horse to do its job. There were a few frustrated tears at first, but many smiles resulted as the students successfully navigated dangerous obstacles safely and easily. Those observing were quite impressed at the changes in the horses.

Later that afternoon the course was changed slightly to get ready for the show. The riders were excited and ready to go as the bleachers filled with spectators. As the show proceeded, the audience was amazed that so many horses were able to navigate the difficult obstacles, and to do so with style and finesse. The best performances occurred when the rider allowed the horse to lower its heads and place its feet on its own. It was also fun to see the smiles of achievement as the awards were given out.

The AQHA recognizes the beauty and skill of Mountain Trail. It’s fun and challenging for both horse and rider. I can only hope this new sport is similarly received across the globe.

Happy trails and Bolender Blessings.


Published December 2011 Issue

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Horse Training
Mark Bolender

Mark Bolender’s name has become synonymous with the new and exciting international equine discipline Mountain Trail. Mark earned national titles in this sport in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and has been supporting Mountain Trail for the past nine years by teaching clinics, judging shows, and building courses worldwide.
Prior to his involvement in Mountain Trail, Mark developed a solid foundation of experience by breeding Quarter Horses and showing in open, Quarter Horse, and Reining competitions. He writes for a number of magazines and is the author of the popular book, Bolender’s Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding. He has produced four DVD’s about training for Mountain Trail and one DVD entitled The Road to Bridle-less. He has been featured twice in the American Quarter Horse magazine America’s Horse for mastering the Trail Challenge. Mark operates a judging school which certifies judges in the USA, Canada and Europe for Mountain Trail and Trail Challenge. He and his wife, Lee, are the founders of the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) which was formed to promote the sport of Mountain Trail. Mark and Lee own and operate Bolender Horse Park in Washington State, which houses the finest Mountain Trail course in the world. Mark and Lee travel the world to give Mountain Trail clinics in almost every corner of the globe.
Mountain Trail made its television debut on RFDTV in November of 2016, further promoting the sport to audiences everywhere.
Using Bolender Horse Park as the model, Mark and Lee have designed and built Mountain Trail courses for private and public use in the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe – with many more in development. These courses are premier sites used by beginners and highly advanced riders alike; they are designed for clinics, shows, and training.
Mark and Lee actively promote the Bolender training philosophy, which centers on using the natural instincts of the horse in the training process. Mark says that activating key instincts in the horse combined with good horsemanship results in real equine magic. They continue to set goals to build more and more courses, promote the IMTCA, and write books and articles for eager enthusiasts. The next goal is to bring Mountain Trail to the Olympics.

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