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Keith Reflects on Heart Of The Horse Event 2022

I recently got home from the Heart Of The Horse Colt Starting Competition held this year in Brooks, Alberta. HOTH is an incredible event, and I was honoured to have been asked to be one of the judges!

Judges Mel Hyland, Keith, Jill Barron and HOTH proprietor Niki Flundra

This event which I believe is in its third year is the brainchild of Niki & Dustin Flundra. It follows the same format as its long-time predecessor Road To The Horse, which is held in Kentucky each spring. Road To The Horse, to my knowledge, was the first event of its kind to be held, but since its inception, there have been many others.

How HOTH works is the three trainers are invited to compete, and each draw for a position in the order they get to pick a colt to start from a group of 2-year-olds. The herd of 2-year-olds is moved around the arena so that the contestants can observe how they move, and react to the bright lights, the new scents and the noises of the event. Among many other considerations that each of the trainers will be making mental notes on. One trainer may be looking for a horse that carries itself a certain way, another may be watching for how a colt fits into the herd dynamic. Each trainer will have their own considerations in mind while watching the herd move through the arena. After observing these youngsters moving around the pen for a few minutes, they will get to pick their partner, in order of what they have drawn. It was interesting to see what each trainer picked from the colts and how they differed or were the same as the colt I would have chosen.

Keith & Jill judging during the event

At HOTH, each trainer gets a first and second pick. After the choices are made, the first choice of each trainer is then separated into their own round pen. The trainer then has 15 minutes to work with their first choice before it's taken out and replaced by their second choice. They then have 15 minutes to work with this second colt before deciding who they will take into the competition with them!

It's fun to see the different choices made as the colts all have their own personality, flaws, strengths and attributes. As does each trainer! Once their final choices are made, the colts are put into round pends, and the trainers go to work!

The competition is broken up into three sessions, over, three days, with mandatory rest periods given to the colts during each session.

After the first two sessions are complete, the colts will be ridden outside of the rounds pens, and then finally over an obstacle course in the final round. The winner is the trainer and colt team that have advanced the most together in the three days.

Keith, Mel Hyland and Sid Cook

Admittedly, when I first heard about these types of competitions many years ago, I had mixed feelings, and I certainly didn’t think I’d one day be judging one of the biggest colt-starting competitions in North America! My uncertainty stemming from the nature of the event, and its being timed. I felt that there may be too much pressure put on the colts and too soon. I also wondered if people would leave with unrealistic expectations of what can be accomplished in a short period of time. And I still think this may be the result in some cases. It's important to note that the trainers invited to these events are professional horse trainers, and have worked with hundreds of colts in their careers! These results are not what the average rider is likely to accomplish at home!

I’m happy to report that I was impressed that the judging criteria was set up to make sure that the colts well being, both physical, as well as mental, was placed as the utmost importance. And I watched the trainers move at a pace in the competition that inspired the horse to rise up to the next level while not overwhelming them. I felt each of the three trainers did this very well.

Congratulations to Dustin Sippola, who won this event for the second year in a row. He did an incredible job on the bay-roan colt he chose, and together they put on a real clinic.

Keith & daughters Hailey & Shelby at HOTH

If you’re attending HOTH or a similar event, my advice would be to watch carefully, take notes and take as much away from this learning experience as you can. It’s not often you get to be a fly on the wall during a horse's first colt-starting sessions.

You can watch highlights of the event, over on our Instagram inside the HOTH 2022 highlight.

The spectators all seemed to really enjoy the event, and I believe it was a good deal for both the horses as well as the humans. In my opinion, each of these colts was fortunate to get its foundation built by Steve, Craig and Dustin.

- Keith J Stewart

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