My horse performed better than I did. The proof was on the light-yellow piece of paper, a report card of sorts critiquing the six butt-numbing-yet-exhilarating hours I’d just spent in a saddle on top of a swishy-tailed, fuzzy-eared bay named Kobe. The two of us were competing in an obstacle course trail ride that required everything from trotting in figure eights to navigating through a cluster of swaying pine trees so that I could ring bells attached to the trunks. And both of us were being judged for all of it.
The Texas Trail Challenge Club puts on about a dozen events like this each year on private ranches and public lands across the state, from Abilene to Utopia. For my competitive debut last fall, I chose the Grasslands Gallop, at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands, a more-than-20,000-acre swath of public land about an hour northwest of Fort Worth crisscrossed by almost 75 miles of trails. Who could resist riding a horse through thigh-high fields of little bluestem, watching grasshoppers spring out of the way as your steed parts the ocean of reddish-gold grass?
The reality was a little less idyllic. “Backed crooked,” judge Bonnie Pasko had jotted down on my report card for the third of ten obstacles, in which I attempted to back Kobe through a narrow zigzag course marked off by timbers laid on the ground. “Cue sooner when horse veers off course . . . Horse lost focus, hit timber.” Translation: because I didn’t clearly tell Kobe what to do, he got bored and stumbled. He scored six out of a possible ten points for that. I fared worse, earning only five. Even that wasn’t as bad as the challenge known as the “turtle log,” where I tried to get Kobe to reverse gracefully, one foot at a time, over a log. We wobbled sideways and meandered off course twice before finally accomplishing the task. That performance earned us each a paltry four points, although I’m sure Kobe would have fared better with a more experienced rider.
My equine companion, in fact, netted an overall 75 points to my 72.5, for a combined score of 147.5 out of 200. We placed thirteenth out of 21 riders in the Saturday challenge’s Tenderfoot division, for beginners (the other two levels are Maverick, for intermediates, and Horseman, for the most experienced). I didn’t bring home any ribbons (though one judge noted my “soft hands” and my “light and balanced” riding style), but I did come away with a renewed love of horseback riding. As a girl, I took lessons for several years, but my skills were rusty. The weekend gave me the chance to bond with other equestrians and brush up on my technique. As Challenge Club president Kate Love-Hollar said, “It’s amazing how much there is to learn.”
The Texas Trail Challenge was started in 2007 by Candace Bradford, at the time the assistant manager of Parrie Haynes Equestrian Center, in Killeen; the group evolved into its current iteration as a club in 2014, with Love-Hollar as its leader. It continued hosting untimed rides for horse-and-human teams, each featuring obstacle courses. “There was a concerted effort to make everyone welcome and stress that this is a learning club—no one should be embarrassed to come and try,” Love-Hollar explained.
Accordingly, the events are similar to—but much less intense than—the trail-riding competitions put on by the North American Trail Ride Conference, in which riders cover long distances within a specific time.
The club, which has roughly 175 members, is predominantly female; all but 5 of the Grasslands Gallop’s 46 entrants for Saturday (which required a $67 fee, plus $12 for a post-ride meal) were women. “You’ve got everything from doctors to housewives,” Love-Hollar told me. “We are always rooting for each other. We know each other’s stories—personal loss, divorce, et cetera—and there are times when it is about more than the ribbon. It’s the feeling of self-worth and love from all of us.” Truly competitive riders, those who come only to win, “either come around to our way of thinking or quit,” she added.
The Challenge Club’s spring season, which begins every year with the Rocky Road competition at Parrie Haynes, runs from February to May; the fall season is September to November. Events are open to everyone, although nonmembers have to pay a $10 fee, and competitors must provide their own horse (I borrowed Kobe from Love-Hollar). A typical weekend includes Saturday and Sunday challenges, though I competed only the first day.
The events kick off with a Friday night meeting to go over rules and routes. Depending on the location, riders sleep in their trailers or in cabins, while the horses spend the night in temporary pens set up outside. The next day, the equestrians prepare for the competition. Each must carry a halter, lead rope, pocketknife, map, and hoof-pick. They also paint their race number on their horse’s hindquarters in temporary hair dye. (Newbies like me add a heart around their number.) Then they follow a route marked by ribbons tied to tree branches. Or at least they’re supposed to. At one point, Kobe and I missed a turn and wandered a mile off course. Just more to see.
“Everything we do emulates something you might encounter while riding,” Love-Hollar said. At a previous event, judges told riders that a snake was hiding in a bush and then scored the participants on their responses.
I didn’t encounter any serpents as Kobe and I passed through eight miles of grassy meadows, pine thickets, and rolling, sycamore-dotted hills. But we did drag a rope threaded through a PVC pipe in a wide circle and trot around cones, and I tried, with little success, to get Kobe to place his front legs on a wooden pallet and spin his hindquarters around it in a semicircle. (“Thank you,” the judge said politely after our first few attempts.) At another point, a hidden judge graded the competitors, without our knowledge, as we mounted our steeds. “It was kind of like sitting in a bird blind,” she said later of her incognito officiating.
The competition wrapped up by early afternoon. A few hours later, we gathered for the distribution of those report cards, which contained helpful feedback, and the awarding of prizes that included such equestrian gear as helmet covers and bags, lead ropes, and hoof-picks. Then came dinner, where we laughed about the day’s mishaps over grilled chicken and smoked carnitas. Marcy Stellfox, standing in line for food, said she’d just earned her lowest score ever for a ride—and she couldn’t wait to do it all over again the next day.
“I can’t believe how much I’ve learned—not just from judges, but other riders too,” seventy-year-old Gretchen Fuchs told me as she adjusted her Tractor Supply Co. cap. “I’d been riding through the mountains of Colorado and the canyons of New Mexico all my life, and I never knew to get up out of the saddle on the uphill sections.” Fuchs is a longtime competitor at club events, but she was serving as a volunteer at this one. The Leander resident spent her childhood riding on a family ranch in Colorado. While boarding her horse at a small farm near Liberty Hill a few years ago, she missed exploring the wilds like she did as a girl. Then she found the club.
“Sometimes I want to get out of the smaller arenas and into wide-open spaces because that’s what I grew up doing,” Fuchs said. “At first I didn’t care about placing. That lasted two times.” Now she travels around the state competing at the Maverick level.
Love-Hollar said that it’s riders like Fuchs who are the reason the club exists. “We’re all those thirteen-year-old girls who galloped around the yard,” she said.
Pam LeBlanc is an Austin-based travel and adventure writer.
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Back in the Saddle.” Subscribe today.