Tom Muth & Regalo
The American Competitive Trail Horse Association (ACTHA) created an ingenious competition to highlight the many ways the American trail horse has served our country’s history. They want to inspire riders to get back in the saddle and start exploring trails and hills and valleys and forests and plains again. America’s Favorite Trail Horse is a reality show contest starring 100 talented horses selected from a field of nearly 900. Horses and their riders competed in auditions held in 24 locations around the country earlier this year. The top 100 horses and their riders spent four days in May competing at the Franklin Family Ranch near Austin, Texas. According to Everett Myers of ACTHA, the actual winners of the competition won’t be revealed until later this year.
“Winners won’t be announced until America votes,” he says. “It will be on HR TV, and 20 episodes will feature 10 contestants at a time.” He says this is the first time ACTHA has tried this kind of event, but overall the organization is pleased with initial results. Viewers will vote for their favorite horses, and ultimately three horses will be selected. First, second and third-place prizes will be awarded.
There are two Pennsylvania horses in the finals, and the stories of how they arrived at this nationwide competition could not be more different.
Rescued from the Meat Buyers, She Gave Birth to a Star
Tom Muth and his wife, from Lawrenceville, PA,went to an auction ten years ago, not thinking about buying a horse. But before the auction started, Muth encountered a pretty special horse. “We were walking around and I ran across this beautiful Quarter Horse mare. She seemed to be in really good health. I looked at her teeth and figured she must be five or six,” he says. When bidding started on the pretty little mare, Muth said he still didn’t plan to buy a horse. But suddenly he became a motivated buyer. “The only two people bidding on her were the meat guys,” he says. “I was getting more and more upset. Now I understand that this is a business, and I’m not too weird about the meat thing going on. But I was having a real issue with a five or six year old going to the meat buyers.”
Muth wound up buying the mare, and he has never regretted it. The mare, it turned out, was pregnant. “Nine months later I wound up with Regalo,” he says. “I named him Regalo which is Spanish for gift, because I felt he was a true gift to me. I’ve had him since the day he hit the ground.” And Regalo regaled the judges and clinicians who were part of this inaugural America’s Favorite Trail Horse competition.
Tyler Flake & Stella
Mad at the World Until She Found the Perfect Job
Tyler Flake of Pocono Manor says he was not too impressed with the mare named Icees Investment—now called Stella—when he first met her at the horse auction last November. “When I first saw her I didn’t want her at all. I’m telling you she was mad at the world,” he says. He was reluctant to bid on her. But his colleague, Jenna Regan, was convinced that this horse was a lot more than she appeared to be.
Flake and Regan work at Pocono Manor Stables, which is owned by Regan’s parents. Flake says that when they brought Stella home, it was clear that she was “scared to death”. But then something changed. “When we started riding her, she was a completely different horse. Initially I was the last person in the world that wanted her, but now I wouldn’t take the world for her.” Flake calls her the best business partner he’s ever had.
Stella quickly turned into the “employee of the month,” and now has her own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/stella.afth), which chronicles her adventures with guests at Pocono Manor Stables and her reflections on competing for the title of America’s Favorite Trail Horse.
From the Farm to the Big Show
Regalo was raised by Muth, who is a Level III Parelli trainer. Right from the start, the only thing Regalo knew about humans was that they are gentle and compassionate. “He is very kind and easygoing around people,” Muth says. And he’s exceptionally accommodating and trusting. “He’s been my trial-and-error horse. Every time I want to try something new, he’s the guy I go to.” Muth has an adventurous streak, and has competed in extreme cowboy contests, roping competitions, etc. And Regalo is as enthusiastic as Muth. “He tolerates a lot from me,” Muth says.
Stella’s history is more mysterious. The angry mare Flake brought home to Pocono Manor has blossomed into a stellar trail horse. “She’s definitely a different horse, but she has brought a lot of business to the barn. She brings in revenue that helps us take care of other horses. She’s kind of like the spokesperson for the barn,” Flake says. Guests who come to the ranch ask for her by name, and she never disappoints. She’s at home on the trails of the 3,000 acre ranch, and no longer scared of people.
Log Jumps, Water, Hills…and Lots of Cameras!
Competitive trail riding is more than a walk in the park. And in pursuit of the America’s Favorite Trail Horse title, competitors have had to jog and gallop, jump and splash in front of camera crews and world famous clinicians there to offer advice and encouragement. It’s like American Idol where amateurs go from singing in the shower or in front of a few friends, to singing on a stage with special effects, demanding judges and millions of viewers.
ACTHA recruited some of the biggest stars of the equine world to participate as clinicians for the America’s Favorite Trail Horse competition, including Pat and Linda Parelli, Monty Roberts, Aaron Ralston, Nancy Cahill, and Guy McClean. As contestants and clinicians gathered in Texas, this trail ride promised to be something truly spectacular.
“The Franklin Family Ranch was an absolutely beautiful place. You can see they really take a lot of pride in the place,” Muth says. Competitors camped with their horses on the property, which encompasses 2,000 acres of trails, woods, streams and hills. Muth says that the competition began with a trail ride. “The first day of competition was Monday and that was a trail ride. They released us in groups of 20 people. When you got to the judged obstacles, it got bottlenecked there. That’s where the camera crews were.”
The camera crews were filming footage for the show, and captured judges offering advice to riders, as well as the contestants confronting unfamiliar terrain. “That trail ride was 3 ½ hours—right through the middle of the ranch and it was beautiful,” Muth says. “We had water crossings, log jumps, etc. We’ve done more challenging stuff, but the terrain was really dry and rocky. A lot of time the ground would just roll away out from under you.” Muth says that Regalo was unfazed by the excitement.
But Flake says that Stella was a little unnerved at first by the umbrellas and other camera equipment. And she didn’t like having to stand and wait for the bottleneck to clear. Nevertheless, Flake says that she got great reviews from the clinicians, along with some valuable advice. “This mare was really shy about her face, and Ms. Nancy Cahill gave us some exercises to do to get her face down.”
Days Two and Three: Alone at Last!
On the second day of competition, riders went out in the obstacle garden. “Cameras were on you through that whole course, and again when you were done, the professionals at the end gave you advice on what they liked, and how you could improve,” Muth says. The obstacle garden was the site for the third day of competition as well, except that this time it was a free style competition. Riders could decide what they wanted to do. Muth says it was fun trying to imagine what to do in the two minutes allotted for this part of the competition.
Riders were originally supposed to have three minutes for the free style event, but storms were rolling in to the area, so the times were shortened to two minutes per rider. The fourth day organizers invited 20 of the competitors to ride just for fun, so the camera crews could get more footage. “We did deep water crossings, steep hill crossing, galloping across open prairies, and that kind of stuff,” Muth says.
Two Trails to the Competition
Muth is a horse lover who also loves competition. In 2009 he was one of the competitors in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, a contest developed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Mustang Heritage Foundation. The goal of the Mustang Makeover was to showcase the value and the historic significance of the Mustang, and to encourage horse lovers to adopt them. In the competition contestants had 100 days to achieve specific training benchmarks for Mustangs. Muth had been given a yearling he named Luna Bonita, and he trained her using the Parelli techniques he had learned over the years. In that competition, Muth found that Luna taught him a lot about himself, as well as about the intelligence and value of the Mustang.
He joined ACTHA because he was looking for something he and his wife could do together. “She doesn’t like to compete,” he explains, but “they have this buddy ride, where we could go out together and I could do the judged part of it, then we could meet up again and go on from there.”
Flake, who is originally from Mississippi, has been involved with horses all his life. He has enjoyed working at the Pocono Manor Ranch, especially because he gets to ride and to take guests out to enjoy the trails. He and Stella have formed a unique bond, which was clear to the judges at their audition in New York. According to Regan, Stella and Flake achieved the highest scores possible from the judges. He says that riding is not a hobby for them. It’s a job—one that both of them clearly enjoy.
Flake and Muth arrived at Janesville, NY as strangers, but have become friends. Flake says that they’re trying to set up a couple of trail rides together. Despite the different trails they took to the Franklin Family Ranch, they do have a lot in common.
Both appreciate the unique ways that horses can touch peoples’ hearts. Flake says the Pocono Manor philosophy is to take good care of the horses, and to make sure they are not overworked. “We stress quality over quantity,” he says, when it comes to the business. Everyone at the stable upholds the philosophy that is expressed on their website. “We are horsemen before businessmen.”
Muth says that every experience he has with his horses teaches him something new. He listens to them, watches them carefully and suddenly realizes that his horses have changed the way he looks at life. “They really opened my eyes and made me a better person. A lot of times we take animals for granted. But they are always talking to us. What happens—and it’s the same thing with people—99.9% of the time we just don’t listen.”
America’s Favorite Trail Horse will be shown on HR TV this fall. The station is not available from all cable providers, but Muth and Flake hope people will ask their providers to carry it. It’s the way they’ll generate votes for Regalo and Stella.