Rescued horses take center stage during the Equine Comeback Challenge
March 17, 2017
Equine Comeback Challenge top 10
1. Brenna DeGeer and Rufio
2. Brent Winston and Justina the Dun
3. Jason Patrick and Tonto
4. Nicole Brotz and Blitz
5. Brittnee Woodward and Bogus Bob
6. Tack Louthan and Mystery
7. Brittany Brown and White Lightning
8. Arturo Curiel and Han Solo
9. Samantha Whittemore and Sanona
10. Sam Grogan and Lucky
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Before Brenna DeGeer took Rufio, a six-year-old bay roan gelding, into her barn in Laporte, Colo., he'd been rejected by two trainers. He was taken to the Colorado Horse Rescue Network when his owner realized they couldn't give the horse the training he needed.
"Rufio had not been set up to win in his past, and he's a smart horse, so he remembered all the failures he's had putting up with people before," DeGeer said.
But for all of Rufio's nerves around DeGeer at first, he still was willing to learn. DeGeer described him as the type of horse that will do anything for a trainer once he knows he can trust them. By the time Rufio and DeGeer hit the arena for the Equine Comeback Challenge at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo March 11-12, DeGeer said they weren't just partners — they were friends.
The challenge gave Rufio his third chance at a career and a home. It was DeGeer's job to give Rufio the skills to make sure that home would stick.
The Equine Comeback Challenge, hosted by the Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance and A Home for Every Horse, pairs horses without homes with world-class trainers. The trainers have 120 days to help the animals become viable options for aspiring owners. Then, the pairs compete in four divisions — ranch riding, working cattle, ranch trail and a freestyle round for the top 10 pairs — and after the event, the horses are sold in an auction. Half the proceeds benefit the rescues involved in the event, like the Colorado Horse Rescue Network, and the other half becomes prize money for the trainers. This auction at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo brought in nearly $39,000.
Three of the horses didn't make it to the auction, though. Instead, they found their forever homes in the barns of their trainers.
Justin Dunn, a longtime trainer out of Guffey, Colo., found a perfect fit for his children's therapeutic riding program in Paulo, a four-year-old gray mustang. Paulo was rescued from Bureau of Land Management land and given basic handling by Far View Horse Rescue, an organization which works with the BLM to rehome mustangs, before he was trained by Dunn.
Dunn and Paulo didn't make the top 10 in competition, but for Dunn, a horse's personality is more important than its accolades — especially when it comes to an animal like Paulo.
"Kids, he loves. Showing, he doesn't," Dunn said with a laugh.
Right after the trail portion of the competition, where Dunn and Paulo were eliminated, the trainer turned his attention to Paulo, combing a hand through his shaggy gray mane.
"It was that song, wasn't it?" he said in a lilting voice, like he was talking to a child. The song that played during their performance was "All About That Bass," and with a wrinkled nose, Dunn said that it wasn't Paulo's style.
And for the pair, its style is what matters. Dunn learns what works for Paulo and trains him from there. His focus is on making the mustang comfortable and on teaching the horse to excel by showing his own personality.
"I don't want to force him to do anything," Dunn said, adding that his philosophy is an easy one with Paulo, because he's young and curious. "This horse is so intuitive. He's very interested in everything. (Training him) has been a pleasure."
Fountain, Colo., trainer Samantha Whittemore made it to the top 10 round with her two-year-old quarter horse filly Sanona, where they finished ninth overall. From their first interaction, Whittemore knew there was something special about Sanona. The filly had only been ridden 10 times and was "a little wild," Whittemore said. But she was easy to work with and willing to do whatever Whittemore pushed her to do. That's why it broke her heart that before the competition, Sanona was nearly out of options. Whittemore said Sanona could easily have ended up in a kill barn.
"I thought, 'If I adopt her, I don't have to worry about where she goes,'" Whittemore said. "She can live and die at my ranch."
After the competition, Sanona went home with Whittemore, where she will continue training to be a trail riding horse.
This was the fourth Comeback Challenge held in Colorado, and the sixth overall held by A Home for Every Horse. Mariah Hammerschmidt, spokesperson for the event, said this was the most successful challenge she has seen and the crowds at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo loved it.
"We draw a lot of people in because of curiosity," Hammerschmidt said. "But at the end of the day yesterday, a lot of people were really touched by what was happening."
The event helps bring attention to a group of horses in need that often get overlooked by the equine industry, Hammerschmidt said. Often, the focus for rescue horses is on the high-level animals or on the kill barns, but the Equine Comeback Challenge hits that middle ground — the owner surrenders, the untrained horses and the animals who just need a second chance.
For trainers like DeGeer, who have spent their entire lives horseback, helping horses is a way to return the love the animals have always shown.
"Horses have saved my life countless times," said DeGeer, a Burns, Wyo., native. "I feel it's my duty to try to repay the favor." ❖