Article by Kristina Lotz
When people think of trail horses, the first thing that usually comes to mind is someone in a Western saddle walking down the trail astride a Quarter horse type mount. But this was an image that Bolender Horse Park owners and founders of the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA), Mark and Lee Bolender, wanted to change. “We wanted people to see that all breeds, all sizes of equines could do this sport and it can be done in any saddle—or even from the ground!” says Mark.
So, when they started the sport of mountain trail back in 2001, it looked a lot different than what some people may have expected. Sure, they had natural trail obstacles like bridges, rocks, logs, and water. They had hills, teeter totters, balance beams, and gates. What made it different was the inclusivity of riders, handlers and their equines. “You can compete with your horse, donkey, or mule,” shares Lee. “Ride in a Western, English, baroque, or Peruvian saddle.”
This even includes miniature horses and ponies of any size. The IMTCA Mountain Trail course at Bolender Horse Park is set up to be traversable for any size equine — from the 30-inch mini to the 18-hand draft horse. Allowing such a broad range of horses and disciplines means everyone can have fun. “Maybe one kid has a pony, another is into jumping, and Mom rides Western; it doesn’t matter as they can all come and play, train, and compete at Bolender’s,” says Lee.
We all understand the benefits of cross-training with our equines and know how good it is for them mentally to do something different, but you may be wondering, why allow minis? “Just because they are small does not mean they can’t (or shouldn’t!) learn to go over obstacles or be handled correctly from the ground,” explains Mark. “They are still horses. Teaching them to respect your space and go where you ask them to is important no matter the size. So is gaining confidence. A confident mini that has been exposed to trail obstacles, goes through water, etc., will be much calmer when it’s hooked to a cart and more respectful when being handled by the family.”
Teaguen Weise, a frequent competitor at Bolender Horse Park with her Quarter horse for the past six years, recently brought a miniature mare for a schooling challenge. She has already seen a difference in her. “I’ve noticed dramatic improvement in my miniature horse’s confidence,” she shares. “Just like with the larger horses, miniatures are provided with endless mental stimulation from the trail course and practicing basic maneuvers. Aside from the confidence and knowledge it brings horse and handler, doing Mountain Trail with a miniature horse has been one of the most fun things I have decided to partake in with IMTCA.”
With IMTCA Mountain Trail, “minis” are defined as any equine 11 hands or under. So, whether your partner is a registered miniature horse, a grade pony of unknown origin, a mini donkey or mini mule, they are welcome. Within the mini division there are four levels: Novice, Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 —all done in-hand. Novice is for a person who has never competed in a Mountain Trail competition before. After that, the levels get increasingly difficult in maneuvers and obstacles. Levels 2 and 3 may ask you to trot between obstacles.
Weise notes that for her there are different challenges when working with a mini versus a horse, which is turning her into a better horseperson. “Miniatures bring a whole new level to the playing field,” she explains. “Turning a 30-inch pony on a balance beam might be easier than turning a horse. However the difficulty of walking over—and side passing over—a log that is up to their belly is tricky! It’s as exhilarating as riding a level 3 pattern with your horse. I have had to come up with new ways to approach things with such a small partner and it’s very challenging to move such a small body in so many different ways.”
Doing in-hand with your mini is a great way to increase their training and your bond. “I just recently got an 11-hand grade mare as a pasture companion for my wife’s mare,” says Brent Lotz, who is competing as a novice this year. “Since my wife was competing with her mare at Bolender’s, I thought, I might as well do something with our pony. It’s way more fun than I thought it was going to be; one show and I am hooked and can’t wait to do more. And it’s teaching our new horse better manners.”
Bolender Horse Park is open with play days, schooling shows, IMTCA Regional Qualifying Challenges, and an IMTCA Regional Challenge all planned for this year. To get your mini started in Mountain Trail, contact Lee Bolender at 360-269-6156 or visit www.bolenderhorsepark.com.
The Northwest Horse Source is an independently owned and operated print and online magazine for horse owners and enthusiasts of all breeds and disciplines in the Pacific Northwest. Our contemporary editorial columns are predominantly written by experts in the region, covering the care, training, keeping and enjoyment of horses, with an eye to the specific concerns in our region.