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‘Xtreme’ equestrian course aims to take fear out of trails

For many equestrians, the height of horsey delight is a trail ride.

Horse and rider enjoy expansive views, and the gentle plodding transports them far away from the daily training grind. The rider reflects on how trail riding is what it’s all about. Birds chirp, the horse is relaxing, stretching his neck, looking around and, oh dear, what is that? Someone is shaking out a blue tarp in front of a tent just off the trail. The horse stiffens, stops, turns and bolts, going from shuffle to breakneck gallop in a split second. Nerves completely frazzled, the two hopefully manage to end the trail ride together.

No, it doesn’t have to be that way, and now there’s a place to go and get prepared for a safe trail riding experience: at the Cowgirl Co-op in Colbert. There, Jill Smith has built an Xtreme Trail Horse Course and opened it to the public.

The course is not extreme in that there are no huge jumps or deep rivers of the type found in cross-country competitions.

“It’s a series of smaller obstacles that a trail horse may encounter on the trail,” said Smith.

Think a dog agility course without the speed aspect.

On this course, horses encounter big blue barrels, a horse teeter-totter, a bridgelike construction to walk across and traffic cones.

They can go through water and zigzag around and over poles on the ground.

In the middle of the field sits a colorful garden umbrella. Sometimes trainer Shannon Morse brings in a couple of donkeys and a little yak.

“Many horses have never seen donkeys, and they can be quite scary,” said Smith, laughing.

Another obstacle is the “carwash,” which looks like a freestanding doorframe, tall and wide enough that a horse and rider can easily pass through it, but with long flapping strips of tarp hanging from the top. Horse and rider walk through the whole thing, much like passing through a curtain.

The person who doesn’t know anything about horses will look at this and ask: So what’s the big deal about meeting a donkey and walking through some old tarps?

“It’s about trust. The rider has to trust the horse, but the horse also has to trust the rider that he can do this and not get hurt,” said Morse, who demonstrated how to do the carwash on her 7-year-old horse, Raven. “It’s actually a lot like ranch training. Once the horse believes in you and trusts you, then the obstacles are just tasks that need to be done.”

Morse is at the course to offer help and advice on Saturdays.

Horses have different temperaments and personalities, but they all respond with flight if they get scared or feel overwhelmed and that can be detrimental to riders of all experience levels, and to the horse.

“We are really doing this because we want to make better riders and better horses, safer horses,” said Smith, who breeds racing Arabians and palominos on the almost 100-year-old farm just north of Green Bluff. “And it’s something new to do with your horses, outside the show ring. You don’t have to be perfectly turned out or have the $2,000 saddle to come up here.”

Just like the rest of the Cowgirl Co-op, the obstacle course is in its beginning stages, and come spring there will be a lot more going on.

“We just wanted to do a soft start and get some people up here,” said Smith, who’s an entrepreneur and an artist. “This is a sneak preview. We hope to next year have the most artful Xtreme Trail course in the United States.”