With pink tutus adorning their saddles and glittery necklaces, horses at the Big Sky Horse Park ran through puddles, walked over seesaws, and stood atop a pile of tires to showcase their agility and responsiveness to their riders Friday afternoon.
The Big Sky Horse Park introduced a new obstacle challenge last year, which is meant to expose horses to situations that require them to remain calm and composed. The fun outfits are a way to make the event more exciting, playful and creative.
“The course is meant to build confidence for your horse and build a partnership between horse and rider,” said Sheila Mealey, vice president of the Missoula Horse Council, the nonprofit that operates the horse park.
The Big Sky Horse Park was founded in 1982, and stretches across 90 acres in western Missoula, with a walking trail around its perimeter. Riders of all styles and ages use the park, though riders are required to have a membership or pay a day fee. Other obstacle competitions have been held at the park in the past, but this newer course is designed to be more fun, and doesn’t emphasize speed. The horses’ moves are deliberate and controlled.
The obstacles put horses in situations that might make them uncomfortable — like walking over uneven ground or through a confined area with fluttering flags — which helps desensitize them to stressful stimuli and makes them more comfortable in the backcountry, Mealey said.
Over the summer, the park holds an event or show every Saturday, but only three “Color My Ride” obstacle challenges. Riders of any age and riding style are welcome to compete, and there is a prize for both the best costume and the best riding. Past winning costumes include Zorro and Raggedy Anne.
Ethan Zimmerman, a judge and riding instructor, said he began riding as an adult, and wasn’t very confident at first. The obstacle challenges helped him gain skill that translated into confidence.
“I’ve heard people say stuff like, ‘What’s the point of doing that? You’re never going to see noodles like that on the trail.’ But horses don’t think the way humans do,” Zimmerman said. “They think in terms of whether or not something is safe for them. So if you can get them confident in these kinds of situations, when a deer jumps out or something like that, they’re less likely to be afraid.”
The competitions are lighthearted and meant to give people a chance to test their skill without too much pressure, Zimmerman said, sitting atop his 16-year-old horse Sam.
“It’s a super-friendly environment, and everybody’s really supportive,” Zimmerman said. "It’s a competition, but it's not super-serious, and any level of rider can do it. It’s fun to just get your horse out and do various things and challenge yourself and your horse to come out and take advantage of this terrific park.”
Zimmerman is married to Lorri Roy, who also works as a judge and instructor at the park. Roy grew up on a farm, and has ridden horses her whole life. Between the two of them, Zimmerman and Roy have six horses. When they aren’t trail riding, the couple like to teach courses to riders who want to prepare for the competitions. The costume aspect of “Color My Ride” reflects the laid-back competition atmosphere at the horse park, Roy said.
“I think it’s good because oftentimes adults get pretty boring, so it kind of causes us to maybe step outside our comfort zone a little bit and try to be creative,” Roy said. “And again, not be so serious about everything.”
“It’s like Halloween in the summer,” Roy added.
Most competitions draw about 75 riders from places like Missoula, the Bitterroot, Flathead, Bozeman and Helena. The next “Color My Ride” competition is July 15, and includes 13 separate divisions for different ability levels, riding styles, ages and pair or solo competition. The proceeds help the park install more permanent obstacles, and maintain the area for park members.