Skittish, unbroken horses flinched, bucked and whinnied in protest as trainers subdued them during the Colt Start Challenge Saturday at the Montezuma County Fair.
The event is part competition, part horsemanship education, and part fast-track training for local owners who pay $200 to enter their untamed horses.
Five event trainers are assigned an unbroken horse and give a play-by-play of their techniques to the crowd over a loudspeaker.
Trainers are judged on how well they persuade the horse to accept a halter, saddle, and rider in two days using natural horsemanship.
Gone are the Old Western days where a cowboy would tie a horse to a pole, throw a saddle on them, then ride until the horse stops bucking.
There's a safer, gentler way that's more effective, says Zen Greenlee, a trainer from Delta, Colo.
"We build on softness, laying brick by brick to gain trust and get a good foundation," he said. "I want him to look at me for guidance on where to go."
Jeremy and Mandi Birge, of Dove Creek, participated for the first time, handing over their horse Prince to Greenlee.
"It's for my wife to ride for leisure," he said. "Here she can watch and see what needs to be worked on and get ideas from the trainer."
Tarps are rubbed all over Prince and his lead is attached to one. He is guided over obstacles that mimic items on the farm or trail to desensitize him to them.
"He's getting acclimated to things being around him. Laying that groundwork is the better way - so far so good," Birge said.
Competition is second to handing over an improved horse to the owner, said trainer Freddie Munoz.
"We want to prepare them for what's coming, whether it be as a working horse or trail horse," he said.
It takes patience, experience, and toughness to take on a strange horse in a small pen.
As spectators look on, horses seem calm and curious, then suddenly rear up and gallop wildly, sometimes pinning trainers against a fence. Others suddenly buck their riders, even after accepting them.
"The horses are not dumb, and like anything they spook if they feel they might be hurt," Greenlee says. "Using the pressure and release tactics of natural horsemanship calms them, builds communication and trust."