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Vancouver, Washington – March 13, 2017 – The Washington State Horse Expo has, for the first time, hosted a Mountain Trail Challenge on a course built by Mark and Lee Bolender.

The March 3-5 event hosted thousands of spectators who saw horses and riders competing in various levels of challenges. The Mountain Trail Challenge was held on a course built by the renowned Bolender couple for the Expo, and it is the first time their course was used for this competition at an Expo in the USA. The event was sanctioned by the IMTCA (International Mountain Trail Challenge Association) and most competitors came from as far away as Nevada, Minnesota, and Canada.

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Mastering the teeter-totter is, for the most part, a simple task for the horse and will only take a few minutes. However, if it has been improperly taught it can be difficult to correct.

I have had three very tough horses to fix over the last six years. The first one was in Florida where the horse’s owner had spent six months daily trying to get the horse over the teeter-totter yet it was getting worse each day. The horse had become dangerous to the human and itself. This was an attractive, well-bred Appendix Quarter Horse with only one problem: going crazy at the sight of a teeter-totter.

The second one was a 9-year-old Arabian that came to Bolender Horse Park, and the third horse was another nice Quarter Horse in Toronto, Canada....

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by Mark Bolender


Riding a horse through rugged mountain trails is something many people do on a daily basis, especially in the western United States. It’s anybody’s guess what sort of obstacles you and your horse might encounter on these trails, from fallen tree limbs to deep washouts. An experienced horse and rider can navigate such obstacles just fine if they have the proper training and experience. However, few things in horseback riding are more dangerous than being unprepared for these challenges.

Navigating difficult obstacles along a backcountry trail is actually the backbone of the sport mountain trail. It began as an informal competition just over a decade ago and has grown into an international sport complete with rules and regulations. Horse and rider compete for points while negotiating difficult challenges, the sort that might actually be found on a trail ride such as rocks, logs, ponds, bridges and a host of others.

To successfully compete in mountain trail and smoothly navigate challenging obstacles a proper relationship between horse and rider will be required. Suitable training takes time and effort, for both horse and rider and it results in a partnership where the horse displays boldness and confidence as it picks its way through each obstacle. The horse will be willing to do so because it trusts the rider and takes cues to perform tasks it would normally run away from. When performed properly, with the unity that only good training can accomplish, horse and rider move along obstacles with a finesse that makes it appear two individuals are working as one.

While teaching a clinic recently, several horses were having a struggle with an obstacle called the ladder. This obstacle is made up of a number of boxes of various sizes and the horse must think it through, deciding carefully where to place its feet. Some riders were a little frustrated because their horses could not get the idea that each stride needed to be different. The horses kept stepping on the 4×6’s making up the ladder, or they would skip a box which equals a one point deduction. Here are some tips that have worked for me in training the horse to properly walk through the ladder obstacle.

First, begin on the ground in-hand and take your time. It will work best if you start with the horse on your right so you will pull it into the bend of the obstacle. Approach the obstacle and let the horse drop its head and think it through. Next, have the horse step into the first box and stop. When the horse is ready, it will take the second step into the obstacle; do not let it step onto the 4×6 divider. Now coach the horse to step with all four feet into the obstacle. Don’t worry about the fact that the horse will likely step out with at least one, but more often both, back feet. Just let the horse stand on a loose lead rope until it is completely relaxed. Don’t try to have it move its feet into the obstacle once they are out. Now ask the horse to move forward and stop at the end with at least two feet in the obstacle boxes. Let the horse stand again and relax before asking it to exit the obstacle.

This process will vary greatly between individual horses—be patient! Let the horse stand and relax once it exits the obstacle. Now, ask the horse to walk back into the obstacle from the same direction as you started and stop when it has all four feet inside the obstacle. Exit the obstacle and go work on another challenge for a few minutes before returning if the horse has tried hard and is relaxed. Even if the horse has not been completely successful, but has given a solid try it is time to walk away because the horse will feel rewarded and that is what we want. Now, come back to the obstacle and work on it until the horse will walk through with all four feet walking into every box. Last, mount up and ride using the exact same steps as outlined for in-hand. Soon the horse will be walking through the ladder with style and finesse regardless of its size. Be careful not to override the horse. What I mean by this is let it figure out where to place its feet. If you override your horse you will always need to place its feet. If you humble yourself and let it learn where to put its feet you will have a much better partnership. Happy Trails and Bolender Blessings.


by Mark Bolender


Spring is here and the mountain trail obstacles are being put to use again. Now is the time to check all the obstacles for safety and needed repairs. When obstacles are used on a daily basis one does not notice how they are being worn down and fatigued. Spring is a good time to closely inspect them and make necessary repairs. I call it “preventive maintenance” so obstacles don’t fail while being used.

Let’s start with the first thing that is often overlooked: footing. The footing around an obstacle—which also may be part of it—is very critical and should be correct. For example, if you have a mud bog you still need a footing under the ...

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by Mark Bolender


In 2013 we had our first guest from Italy travel to Bolender Horse Park to evaluate and see firsthand what mountain trail was all about. They spent their time immersed in the sport, attending a riding and a judging clinic and also taking many riding lessons. While this discipline was designed for the recreational rider, it also challenges the most experienced rider and they left with a new appreciation of mountain trail. In just three years mountain trail in Italy went from watching YouTube videos of Bolender Horse Park, to a beautiful indoor course in that country and brilliant professional rides that were a joy to judge when I visited this November. Here is how Italy was able to jump in and master this sport in such short amount of time.

After the first Italian visitors returned from their trip to the US, their enthusiasm spread throughout Italy. Courses were built and with the help of the internet, mountain trail was started as a competitive sport. We were invited by Renzo Canciani of Gottolengo (near Milan) to hold several clinics at his facility which includes a mountain trail course. We held riding clinics, plus a judging clinic with 31 people in it. Many facilities rushed to add obstacles to train on and trainers were working hard to learn so they could teach their students and build a fun, new discipline.

We left Italy in 2014 with excitement and the knowledge mountain trail had gotten traction in the country. Even officers for International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA)—Italy, were in place. In the spring of 2015 we returned to Europe and built a course in Germany where we held riding and judging clinics and judged a show. Then we traveled to Renzo’s place in Italy again to hold riding and judging clinics, plus adding a clinic on how to build a mountain trail course. We now have over 50 certified judges in Italy.

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by Mark Bolender


YOU DON’T OFTEN FIND the western horse next to an English style horse in the same competition. This also goes for seeing multiple breeds competing together — Arabians, Peruvians, Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, minis, warm bloods and even mules. Mountain trail is different. This is a competition where all equines can come together because measuring excellence is more about an animal’s mind, not its shape. This is a sport where all types of riding disciplines meet side-by-side to test their skills, whether riding in a western or English saddle. This is why the new association founded by Mark and Lee Bolender — International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) — is growing in popularity across the globe.

The task of growing a new discipline is almost overwhelming when you consider the challenges. These include standardizing competition, obstacles, training and certifying judges, maintaining websites and insurance needs along with language and work permit barriers in 24 time zones. Still, when all is said and done, the joy that the Bolenders see across the board in building up the sport of mountain trail makes it all worth it. More and more challenges/shows are being scheduled and the excitement is growing.

Mountain trail has been introduced at Equine Affaire (Ohio and Massachusetts), and on the West Coast of the US, along with expos in Canada and Europe. In Montreal, Canada they will have a circuit for everyone to compete on in 2016 with four trail courses in the area. Other exciting challenges in 2016 include one in June at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The sport is also seeing more expos adding clinics along with challenges which are well attended. The next expo the Bolenders will be attending is in Verona, Italy in early November. This event draws around 160,000 visitors each year and will be the first European expo to hold a challenge. It’s a major commitment for IMTCA of Italy as they’ve secured one whole pavilion for the challenge where they’ll set up a complete mountain trail course along with many specially built portable obstacles such as swinging and rolling bridges. Stalls were sold out in the first two weeks and this will be the largest challenge held in the world to date.


The president of the Italian IMTCA, Lino Tosoni, has obtained sponsors from some of the largest companies in Italy, along with some global companies based out of Portland, Oregon. Sponsorships will be a key to the growth of the sport because travel, prizes and facilities are costly.

Another key to building up this discipline is for new mountain trail courses to be constructed across the globe. Some trail courses have been very expensive to build but, depending on the use, they can also be a great revenue generating investment. The last course built in Germany had 1,000 spectators show up to watch a challenge. Since this particular course has been built it has been in non-stop use for training, challenges and clinics.

Coming soon in IMTCA will be the “battle of the breeds.” The Bolenders see this as a fun class because each breed can complete on the same level. When it comes to training for competition, there’s actually much more difference within a breed than between breeds. It comes down to disposition. The most desirable disposition for a competitive mountain trail horse includes boldness and confidence.


As a trainer, Mark finds these traits in individuals of every breed. A well-trained horse can be observed working out the obstacles on its own; it doesn’t rely entirely on the rider to know where to place a hoof or where to go. Its head is down, ears are forward, and it’s clearly thinking and working out the problem.

Mark and Lee own and operate Bolender Horse Park Inc. in Silver Creek, Washington which is widely recognized as one of the finest mountain/ extreme trail courses in existence, drawing students from around the world. Equestrians of every skill level train side-by-side with horses of every breed. Even if you don’t want to compete, training for mountain trail is an experience like no other. The bond that is developed forms a strong relationship between horse and rider. Many participants describe the experience of training for mountain trail as “wildly addictive.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION about IMTCA visit imtca.org. Learn more about Bolender Horse Park, including training and upcoming competitions, at bolenderhorsepark.com.

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Master these Basic Skills to Improve Safety and Scores

by Mark Bolender

To improve their mountain trail scores it’s important to master nine basic skills. These skills can also be returned to, again and again, to master the variety of obstacles found on course.


  • Ability to move the shoulders and haunches both from the ground and in the saddle. If you don’t have a good pivot on the forehand, practice it or get help to improve this skill. In the saddle it’s a combination of rein and leg control which allows proper movement. A pivot on the haunches does not need to be at the sizzling speed of a reiner, but the ability to move the shoulders at will is a must. Start is from the ground.

  • Side Pass. Put the pivot on fore and pivot on hind together and you have a side pass. As the mountain trail challenges increase in difficulty this skill is a must.

  • Upward/downward transitions. You need a good solid stop and crisp transitions. I’m not talking about a sliding reining stop, but a stop when asked for. More than 1,000 horses come through our facility each year and I seldom see a good stop. If you are coming up to an obstacle in any speed other than a walk, you’ll need to slow down to walk into, or onto, an obstacle. If this skill is absent then walking straight onto/into an obstacle is impossible. The lack of a transition will mean that you will rush into an obstacle or pass it by. Begin by stopping the horse at a walk and back up. Perfect this skill and move up to a trot and canter/lope until you can stop at will with very little effort.

  • The backup. You will need a solid back-up, without head tossing or pulling on the bit.

  • Step-up’s/step-downs. The ideal trail horse will approach a step-up/down and will walk one step at a time, without jumping. The vast majority of horse will want to jump; this is unwanted.

  • Jump-up’s/jump-down’s.The majority of horse will be able to jump up or down 30-36”. On a real trail this is a common, necessary skill. Before you mount up, first teach the horse first in-hand until it can, with relaxed ease, jump up or down before you mount up.

  • Walking through logs and rocks. It seems that the challenges are getting increasingly difficult around the globe. You will need a horse that can pick up its feet and think its way through the obstacle with very little guidance from the rider. This is more of a mind skill than a physical skill. To teach this one will need to give up some control and allow the horse to make a mistake. In the long run this allows them to figure it out for themselves and learn to pick up their feet.

  • Water Crossing. Not only will the will the horse need to cross water, it needs to be taught how to trot and lope/canter through water.

  • Navigating unfamiliar obstacles. In order to master challenges the horse has never seen before it must be bold, confidant and possess trust in the rider.

There are many more skills needed for mountain trail, but if you can master these nine you will be safe and competitive in most trail competitions around the world. Happy trails and Bolender Blessings!


Why Obstacle Training is Good for Every Horse

by Mark Bolender

Your horse’s mind is an amazing place, but understanding the basics is an absolute necessity in order to effectively train it. The reality is I want to change the horse’s natural instinct, reaction, and teach it to think first.

The way horses are programmed has helped them to survive in the wild, without the help of man, but I need to build a partnership with the horse so it will trust me.

Obstacle training can help accelerate this process of thinking before reacting. I find a well thought out mountain trail or obstacle course teaches the horse to move with boldness and confidence through the most difficult obstacles. Good training allows us to use the horse&rsquo...

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With a little know-how, a rock obstacle is easy to construct and easy to master. I love this obstacle because it teaches a horse to slow down and think. It will teach the horse to carefully pick up and place its feet and also to think its way through. It’s a practical and useful training tool that almost anyone can construct (with some help on the heavy lifting).

The rock obstacle is made up of numerous large rounded rocks. I personally prefer an obstacle that has 50 to 75 boulders. These boulders should

be the size of soccer/ basketballs. In addition, the obstacle should also feature a few very large rocks. This challenge takes up a small space and can be sized from 12-20 f...

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by Mark Bolender


It never ceases to amaze me how consistently the horse remains a forgiving creature. I can’t tell you how many mistakes I have made in training, and how many mistakes I have observed being made, that the horse continues to forgive. How do they do it?

It all goes back to the fact that the horse is a natural born follower. Yes, we need to be clear and consistent but horses continually allow us opportunities to become better leaders. It reminds me of a scenario I encountered while teaching in Germany. A large warmblood mare had begun rearing up and striking out because of frustration. Inconsistent cues from the handler had made this horse dangerous and she greatly intimidated the owner. After watching the interaction between the two for awhile, it was obvious how things had gone wrong. During ground work, for instance, I asked the owner to back the horse. She attempted, but gave the horse so many conflicting signals it struck out at her, then bit her without complying with the request. At this point I stepped in to help.

At first, my attempts to influence the mare resulted in a battle of the wills. After a few minutes of work, however, and some very clear and focused cues, the horse’s instinct to follow a leader was triggered and it did as I requested. The owner and horse continued to work together and made progress over the weekend. This was a smart, strong willed horse that wanted a job when properly asked. As the obstacles increased in difficulty, the horse began to focus on its job and less on the mixed signals it constantly received from the owner.

A horse wants to trust and believe that we are worthy of leadership so they will often overlook the missed cues and mistakes we make. Thank God horses are not like humans. Instead, it seems they are looking for the good in us, will try to please and are very willing to overlook many of our mistakes. I bring up this topic because recently I watched a client try their best to teach a horse to cross the balance beam. Instead of allowing the horse time to think and place its feet upon the balance beam, the handler was moving all over and sending confusing signals to the horse. When the horse finally stepped up on the balance beam with two feet it was immediately rushed for more. At this point it became frantic and jumped off and rushed around. Instead of allowing the horse to settle and think it through, the handler became very aggressive and tried to discipline the horse by spanking and backing it up. There are times where discipline is appropriate but this was not the time. The horse was being punished for human mistakes. As I watched from a distance the bad situation escalated into a full blown battle of wills and the balance beam was largely forgotten. I knew the client wanted to teach the horse himself so as hard as it was to watch, I let him continue. After more than an hour of struggle both horse and handler were sweaty yet the horse still would not approach the balance beam. What went wrong?

Two major mistakes were made in this scenario. First, the owner began moving his feet in such a way instinct prevented the horse from following. If a handler is perceived as below the horse in pecking order, leadership is not in place. The second thing that happened is this handler allowed his emotions to get involved, further blocking any learning. By the time I was asked to help, both horse and rider were completely frustrated and at odds with each other. After working with the horse for five minutes it walked across the balance beam. The client was amazed at the results and how calm the horse was. I quickly explained to him that it was not what I did but what I did not do that made such a difference. I was focused, moved my feet very little and showed no emotion.

I further explained that horses live in the moment, are looking to forgive and with just a few minor changes in our behavior they are willing to try again. Both horses described in this article reacted immediately once the humans changed their behavior. Isn’t it amazing how horses really just want us to get it right?

Happy Trails and Bolender Blessings.

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