Temperatures approached 100 degrees Sept. 24 and 25 for the California State Horsemen's Association's Championship Trail Trials two-day Championship event at Napa's Skyline Park.
While a few participants suffered heat exhaustion, those who finished the competitive, steep and rocky courses were rewarded with a unique result.
Local Woodside riders, Dean "Kip" Witter on his horse, Splash, won the Advanced division, while his wife, Rebekah, and her 5-year-old gelding, Slick, took Championship honors in the Novice division, marking the only husband-wife dual Championship in Trail Trials history.
"We are thrilled," Kip Witter said. "Despite the heat and challenging course and obstacles, our horses hung in there and really did a great job both days. Splash and I won Reserve (second place) Championship buckles in 2007 and 2009, so it's a real treat to finally crack the Championship code."
Rebekah adds: "Slick has just started Trail Trials. To qualify for State, one needs to complete at least three sanctioned CSHA Trail Trial competitions. Slick's dam, my mare Lady Doc, is my regular Trail Trial horse, and has placed third in the State the last three years in a row, and was 2009 Regional Champion.
"I qualified both horses this year and just took Slick to the Finals on a whim. So the Championship rides were only his fourth and fifth Trail Trials, but he ended up with the second best score of all 70 competitors. I couldn't be more pleased with his attitude and abilities."
Trail Trials are held throughout California and consist of, on average, a 10-mile trail ride with 10 judged obstacles representing challenging situations one might come across: working gates, dragging obstructions, crossing rivers, streams, etc. Horse-and-rider teams are judged for performing each task in a safe, calm, technically correct manner.
"As with most sports, it sounds and looks easy — until one actually tries it," said Rebekah. "It can be very challenging for a team to perform calmly and correctly while being judged."
Author of four books on the horse-human relationship, Rebekah attributes their success to the "Natural Horsemanship" she trains their horses in.
"Body language and the power of focus is the language of the horse," Rebekah said. "We use natural cues such as pressure and breath to train our horses. If I want my horse to go, I inhale and quietly lift my energy; when I want him to stop, I simply exhale, relax and he stops-as subtle as magic.
"Such quiet, natural cues are an obvious advantage in all riding, but they really pay off in competition."
Another fact of note: Both Witters won their championships and all their competitions riding in simple rope halters — no bit, no bridle, just communication, cooperation and a compassionate, competitive spirit.