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My obsession with IMTCA and Extreme Mountain Trail — I am a true believer 

by Barbara H. Callihan

Approximately 12 years ago, I discovered Mountrail Trail via the Internet when I happened upon the website for Oregon Horse Center, owned by Major Defoe, who had created the discipline in 2000. I remember watching some videos, including a few made via go-pro® attached to riders’ helmets. I was amazed at all the indoor natural mountain obstacles that had a truly rustic and rugged mountain theme. I was impressed with the quality, complexity, and difficulty of the well-designed courses. I was in awe of the incredible partnerships between horses and riders that had been developed to navigate the trail courses. And, I was excited that the horse community was beginning to understand and promote the value of trail obstacles by developing an entirely new competitive discipline. Unfortunately, I took no action at that time, and over the next few years my vague dream began to slip away. At that time, “life’s duties” had become all-encompassing, and the flames of my personal horse fantasies had been put on the back burner, all but doused with resignation. I had lost the connection to the value of my personal dreams to the point that I was willing to abandon them.    

I don’t remember any one moment in my life that marks the time when I began to sink into my deep hole of depression. My life had become lackluster. The wonderful joy I had always felt being around horses was nearly gone. My “want to” had abandoned me. Then one gloomy afternoon, Brenda Fleming, a friend and client, casually mentioned the Oregon Horse Center and its challenging indoor trail competition, as well as three-time national champion Mark Bolender. I felt a fleeting spark of interest to learn more, but in the end I did not act on it, at least not yet. For the next few weeks, when I had quiet time with myself, my thoughts would take me back to the Oregon Horse Center, until I was moved to take action — so I visited their website to learn more. A few weeks later, I found myself on Mark Bolender’s website. As I read more, watched the videos, and became more familiar with his philosophy, that fleeting spark suddenly ignited.

With a small flame now burning inside me, I began to feel the heat of curiosity and excitement for new adventures. I started to feel a renewed connection to my own personal equestrian dreams. With more years behind me than in front of me, I became deeply aware that every day I have on this fragile planet is a gift, and that time stands still for no one. I began to appreciate that there were still items to check off my own personal bucket list. While I still had the physical and mental strength, I wanted to be able to seek out the passionate temptations of my dreams. I wanted to experience the adventures of the unknown, challenge myself to learn new things, test myself to achieve more than I thought imaginable, and master things that I have yet to discover. It  was time for the coach to become the student and to push myself through unchallenged limits.

For the next eight months I immersed myself into this new found world of Extreme Mountain Trail. I felt pulled and driven with a single mindedness that I had not felt for decades — something had finally caught my attention and I was obsessed with gathering more information. After ordering the book Bolender Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding, and the accompanying Mark Bolender DVD, as well as finding all the videos I could on YouTube, I read, watched, and dissected every word and every movement. In the summer of 2016, I decided that Chunky and I would study under International Mountrail Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) founder Mark Bolender. I spent two months at Bolender Horse Park in Washington, where I immersed myself in Mark’s philosophy, completed my IMTCA judge’s certification, and competed in my first IMTCA Challenge. By the time I returned to Pahrump, I had developed a deep appreciation for Mark’s philosophy, and I began to integrate his complementary ideology into my own with exceptional results. I had become a believer.

In November of 2016, I was diagnosed with cancer. Undeterred, I made the choice to have major surgery immediately so that I might have the chance to recover in time to compete in the IMTCA Extreme Mountain Trail Challenge at the Washington Horse Expo in March 2017. My surgery took place on December 13th, on February 9th I was back on Chunky. By February 14th I hit the road, in between extreme winter storms dropping rain and snow on the roads, on my way back to Bolender Horse Park. For the next two weeks I continued my studies under Mark Bolender in preparation for the Challenge. In March, Team HHB joined me at the unseasonably cold and wet Washington Horse Expo for the Challenge, where 48 horses competed over all, and I competed against 12 other riders in Level 3—coming away with Reserve Champion. What was truly inspiring and comforting about this journey was that along the way, I had the sincere privilege of meeting dozens of other incredible IMTCA Extreme Mountain Trail riders, competitors, and enthusiasts. These true believers were also experiencing the transformational effects of Extreme Mountain Trail and were working together to build a passionate, supportive, and fun community.

What I discovered out of this experience was an incredible trail discipline that had become the antidote to my burnt-out equestrian experience and a release from my depression. I began to experience a bold and open heart, a renewed confidence and joy, as well as an enhanced partnership with my horse, Chunky Monkey. Mark Bolender’s coaching revealed to me the next level of finishing for Chunky and myself, which focused on letting her think, feel, and try for herself. IMTCA, the governing body of Extreme Mountain Trail, is committed to creating a discipline that will one day be a part of the Olympics, with its special attention to creating and curating an objective, fair, and equitable judging system that would support competitors in knowing precisely how they could improve their scores. The Extreme Mountain Trail community is full of vibrant, fun, enthusiastic, talented, supportive, and devoted riders, competitors, judges, and other stakeholders. As a trail discipline, Extreme Mountain Trail is accessible and challenging for all breeds, all riding disciplines, and includes competitive classes for horses under saddle or in-hand at four distinct competitive levels. Whether you’re a novice on an Arabian riding english, a trainer on a Quarter Horse riding western, or an enthusiast with a miniature horse or pony in-hand, Extreme Mountain Trail offers a unique opportunity for everyone to come together, from all economic levels to experience the unbridled joy of trail. Throughout the entire experience, I witnessed remarkable transformation and change in riders and horses at all experience levels. It was clear to me that the fire that Extreme Mountain Trail had ignited inside me had begun to burn hot and bright.

So, I had come to a crossroads, and the process of choosing what was next for me became deeply personal. I became aware that I had awakened a deep desire to experience physical and spiritual healing and rejuvenation. Transformation was now possible. At my core, I am a horsewomen and any spiritual reckoning  would undoubtedly include experiencing my own personal horse journey at an elevated and polished and enlivened level. Many of you have been witness to the success I have already experienced riding Chunky Monkey over several trail disciplines. That success was possible because of the close bond we had established. Because of this bond, I knew that Chunky had the try and attitude that would afford me the possibility to continue to partner with her with confidence and joy on my personal equestrian journey.

The story about my love affair with Extreme Mountain Trail is not unique. During the past 11 months, I’ve encountered countless equestrians who have been searching for a discipline to cross over to, and now find themselves drawn to the simple, irrepressible joys of Extreme Mountain Trail.  We are drawn to the opportunity to continue to learn, to strengthen our horsemanship, and to build a bold and confident partnerships with our horses. We are drawn to the fun, enjoyable, supportive, encouraging, and empowering environment. We are drawn to the clear and concise judging rules that give us clear feedback on how we can improve. And, we are drawn to the diverse equestrian community represented by equestrians from all disciplines, all breeds, and all socioeconomic backgrounds — who eagerly gather and unite to celebrate the awe of a great trail horse.

The question that now taunted me was how and where would I continue to feed the fire that had ignited in my belly? This personal inquiry made it possible for me to distinguish and contemplate the following scenarios:

  • Move to the Northwest; preferably near the Bolender Horse Park in Washington State.
  • Travel and ride all the IMTCA Courses across the US, meeting the other passionate Extreme Mountain Trail riders, competitors, and enthusiasts while challenging myself and Chunky at each unique park.    
  • Travel and ride IMTCA European Courses, giving me the extraordinary and fun opportunity to experience this great discipline in other countries, while meeting other Extreme Mountain Trail riders, competitors, and enthusiasts.


The more I examined these real possibilities, I began to realize how very one-sided I was being, and another possibility gradually made itself known. Finally, a small voice whispered, “You can bring Extreme Mountain Trail to Southern Nevada!”

By bringing International Mountain Trail to Southern Nevada, I could share on a large scale my new-found passion for an emerging trail discipline that had the potential to transform riders, horses, and the community at large.

With these epiphanies, accompanied by a happy heart and a deep burning fire in my belly, the contemplation of my horse journey literally returned me to Pahrump, Nevada. I had the vision that I would build the first IMTCA-sanctioned trail park and event center in the Southwest, called Happy Hoof Beats Equestrian Trail Park of Southern Nevada.

My vision for HHB Equestrian Trail Park of Southern Nevada is unique and simple. I am creating a state-of-the-art park and event center where equestrians six years old and up, on any horse or in hand, from any discipline, and representing any background can congregate to celebrate Extreme Mountain Trail in a safe, fun, educational, recreational, and competitive environment. Guests will have the opportunity to use the park as an instrument to develop good horsemanship skills and ultimately build bold and confident partnerships with their horses. Guests will be invited to engage with like-minded equestrians to support, encourage, and inspire each other to succeed while developing endearing friendships.

My first horse show was 61 years ago, when I was 11 years old. Since then, my journey has covered a lot of ups and downs over so many trails. Today, through the unbridled joy of Extreme Mountain Trail, I have been reunited with that child-like enthusiasm I first experienced. If I should be so blessed, I will live a life long enough to ride in the first Extreme Mountain Trail at the Olympics. It is possible.

I invite you to join me for the grand opening of Happy Hoof Beats Equestrian Trail Park of Southern Nevada on Saturday, October 21, 2017. If you are a rider who is interested in experiencing the unbridled joy of Mountain Trail for yourself, sign up for a two-day Intro to Mountain Trail coaching session — the first one will be led my IMTCA founder, Mark Bolender on Saturday and Sunday, October 21 and 22nd.

To learn more about HHB Equestrian Trail Park of Southern Nevada, visit our website first, and then email us with questions at

See you on the Trail!

Equestrian Trail Park of Southern Nevada | Bolender Horse Park | IMTCA
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