A chestnut gelding takes a hesitant step forward, then lowers his head to snort at the strange object in front of him. “Think it through,” clinician Mark Bolender says softly while the gelding’s owner nudges him to take another step. The object is a 4 foot wide x 8 foot long wooden frame. Inside is a flat piece of plywood, with several circular holes cut out of it. The gelding eyes it suspiciously, then tentatively puts one front hoof inside the frame. As soon as he feels his weight come down on the plywood, water shoots up through the holes and he jumps back.
The owner nudges him forward again. “Ask and wait,” Mark tells her. “If we never quit asking they shut down.” After about 10 minutes of false starts and a few more snorts, the gelding rushes through the water box. It’s not the most graceful navigation of the obstacle, but at least he gets all four feet in the box. Several spectators cheer. “Take him through again,” Mark directs the owner.
It’s the grand opening of the new Equestrian Trail Park at Happy Hoof Beats Equestrian Center in Pahrump, Nevada. Nearly a dozen riders and their horses, and nearly as many auditors, have come to spend the weekend exploring the park. There are balance beams, a teeter-totter, back throughs, a swinging bridge, a trestle bridge, a rolling bridge (which slides horizontally as you ride across it), and nearly two dozen more obstacles designed to challenge horse and rider. But this is more than just an obstacle course. This is Nevada’s first sanctioned Mountain Trail course.
“I’ve never seen anything that will inspire a horse and challenge a rider like mountain trail.”
A New Sport for All Riders
Mountain Trail is one of the fastest growing riding disciplines. It’s a relative newbie on the scene – formally organized under the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) less than five years ago. But in that short amount of time, dozens of sanctioned courses have opened in nearly as many countries. Today, the IMTCA oversees clinics and competitions at riding facilities across the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and South America.
So what makes Mountain Trail so popular? Its emphasis is on recreational riders – who make up the majority of horse owners. Recreational riders may not compete on a professional circuit, but many are still looking to push themselves and their horse. “I’ve never seen anything that will inspire a horse and challenge a rider like Mountain Trail,” says Mark Bolender, president of IMTCA and the clinician leading the riders at the opening weekend in Pahrump.
Mark and his wife, Lee, have been at the forefront of Mountain Trail since they took up the reins of the sport back in 2006. From their base of operations at Bolender Horse Park in Silver Creek, Washington, they have worked to standardize everything about Mountain Trail – from the obstacles to the judging – so that everyone trains and rides with the same level of challenge, safety, and progression.
IMTCA courses are designed to mimic obstacles that might be encountered on a real mountain trail. Think of it as a trail trial on steroids. Instead of tarps and pool noodles, riders and horses navigate bridges, water crossings, downed trees, and boulders. “This discipline is a combination of dressage, 3-day eventing, and reining,” says Mark. “You need the boldness with the confidence.” Each obstacle is designed with multiple levels of difficulty to challenge novice and expert riders alike.
But, Mountain Trail isn’t just for trail riders. Mark says that even those who never plan on heading into the backcountry can enjoy these courses because the foundation of the sport is horsemanship and partnership. “We use the obstacles to master their mind,” says Mark. “The first goal is not to master the obstacles. They are simply a tool.” Riders and horses both gain confidence navigating the courses – and that confidence carries over to whatever their primary riding discipline happens to be.
A Passion Revived
When Barbara Callihan, owner of Happy Hoof Beats Equestrian Center, discovered Mountain Trail, it changed her life. At 72-years-old Barbara is no stranger to the equine world. A fourth-generation Nevadan, she grew up on a ranch watching her father train horses. Barbara trained her first horse at age nine and has been working with horses ever since. She’s dabbled in everything from endurance to team sorting to hunter jumper. Her equestrian resume is impressive – she’s competed or judged in just about every equestrian discipline in existence.
Despite her success, Barbara found herself in a funk a few years ago. “My life had become lackluster, “ she says. “The wonderful joy I had always felt being around horses was nearly gone.” But a few years ago she discovered Mark Bolender and Mountain Trail. “I felt the fire start again.” Barbara immersed herself in the sport. She poured over Mark’s books and DVDs and even spent two months training at his Washington ranch.
“To me, it epitomizes horsemanship,” says Barbara. The focus on partnership appealed to Barbara, as did the challenge of the obstacles. “I like to push myself,” she says. “I’m a very aggressive rider.” In the fall of 2016, Barbara faced her biggest challenge. She was diagnosed with lung cancer. She had surgery that winter, and by February of 2017 felt well enough to head back to Washington to continue training. In March, Barbara competed in the IMTCA Extreme Mountain Trail Challenge. She took Reserve Champion.
Elated by her success, Barbara realized she needed to bring the sport home to share her new passion with the community. For years, Barbara had been training horses and giving lessons out of her 5-acre property on the southern edge of Pahrump. Her facility offered the standard riding amenities – an arena, round pen, hot walker, and a clubhouse. But Barbara believed it could become much more. Her new goal was to build Nevada’s first IMTCA sanctioned Mountain Trail course.
She and Mark got to work right away to transform Happy Hoof Beats. The next few months were a flurry of discussions, site visits, and plans. Construction crews arrived in September, and by October 2017 – only a few years after Barbara discovered the sport – she was ready to introduce Mountain Trail to Nevada. “I could truly see where this would cross over to all disciplines, to all riders, and to most of the hooved animals,” says Barbara.
IMTCA courses require a minimum of six obstacles, but Mark’s team was able to fit 29 obstacles on two acres of Barbara’s property. It is a compact course, but surprisingly robust. Two water obstacles, three types of bridges, two balance beams, steps, and dozens more obstacles fill up the space. It might sound crowded, but the whole course can be cantered – which Barbara demonstrates for spectators during the grand opening. When a rider navigates a course above a walking pace it is called Extreme Mountain Trail.
Regardless of level, the obstacles are always walked. “When you’re really up in the mountains and riding and coming across different obstacles, you’re not going to canter over the actual swinging bridge!” says Barbara. “But, you may need to approach it briskly.” Despite the level of difficulty built into these courses, Mark insists the sport is not about risk – it’s about horsemanship and gaining finesse. “I’ve never seen a horse on the trail have a wreck… without a trail rider,” Mark likes to joke.
Mountain Trail is unique in its accessibility. English and Western riders are judged the same, as are grade horses and purebreds. There’s no need to go out and buy new tack or outfits. “You can come in with a $200 saddle if it’s clean,” says Barbara. “Glitz, fancy expensive things are not where it’s at in this discipline. It’s your partnership.” Horses can be ridden bitless or bridleless. The IMTCA judging standards even allow for riders with physical or mental disabilities. “They come into this discipline equal,” says Barbara.
What’s made Barbara a true believer in Mountain Trail is the transformative effect it can have on horses and riders. She says it can give new life to horses that are burned out by the repetitiveness of other disciplines. “They have lost confidence,” she says. “They won’t go over a wall. They won’t go through the water. I mean, the horse is just rebelling emotionally.” She says Mountain Trail offers the horse and rider a new way to work together and gain trust through each other. “Each horse has excellence. We just have to find a way to bring it out.”
The Future of the Sport
Mountain Trail continues to attract new converts, in part thanks to Mark and Lee’s tireless energy. When the power couple isn’t hosting clinics at their ranch, they’re leading them at facilities around the world, highlighting the sport on RFD-TV, and publishing books. But they share a vision for the sport that takes them even further. Their dream is to get Mountain Trail to the Olympics. “Could you imagine riding in the Olympics?” says Lee. “We all have a chance. This sport is an equalizer.”
The road to the Olympics is long – Mark says their goal is 10 years from now – but Barbara has her own dreams for her ranch in Pahrump. She says she wants to make Happy Hoof Beats “a horseman’s destination.” She’s eyeing an adjoining parcel of land to purchase. Her goal is to build overnight accommodations for guests. In the meantime, Happy Hoof Beats has a full calendar of coaching clinics, judging clinics, and schooling challenges.
Barbara shows no sign of slowing down now that she’s found Mountain Trail. She says her mission now is to help other equestrians find joy… one obstacle at a time. “What I hope I can do is whatever that little passion these people have for riding… That little bit of the flame… how can I get that into a blazing roar?”
Story by Samantha Szesciorka
Photos by Carol Schley